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‘Glore of thy sex,and miracle to men ‘

Esther Inglis and Scottish Jacobean Culture
James VI Portrait attributed to John de Critz, c. 1605
Scottish historian, cultural activist and former European Parliament translator

IN A FRENCH sonnet addressed to l’unique et souveraine dame de la noble plume, Esther Inglis, the great mainland European calligrapher Jan vanden Velde the Elder, told his fellow-Calvinist Esther Inglis of Edinburgh (1569-1624) that she handled the pen mieux que femme, and that her tiny, handwritten masterpieces far outshone the achievements of male generals, thinkers and doers of ‘meritorious works’. Translating Velde’s sonnet, one of Inglis’s Scottish contemporaries and acquaintances addressed her as ‘the onely paragon and matcheles Mistresse of the golden pen’. And the Scots poet did not tell her, as Velde did, ‘you write better than a woman’. He called her ‘glore of thy sex, and miracle to men’. Examples of her glorious, miraculous work with that golden pen adorn this article.

Miracle or not, Esther is quite unknown to most Scots today. When I mention her, those who don’t simply look blank are likely to say “O, you mean the First World War doctor?”, confusing her with the justly revered Elsie, founder of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. Elsie Inglis and Esther Inglis do have more in common than their sex and the sound of their names: both died in their early fifties, both spent much of their all too short lives in Edinburgh, and both were born furth of Scotland.

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