IntroductionThe Middle Ages are an interesting period to study forseveral reasons. In particular because of the ten centuries-duration, which allowsthe acquisition of a broad view of the society of the time and the fullunderstanding of the changes that it suffered. Nevertheless, it is oftendifficult to deal with this epoch, because of the lack of clear and precisedocumentation. This has led many to make generalizations about medieval cultureand society, based on prejudices and stereotypes, as in the case of women’seducation and their participation in the cultural development of theircountries.
Unfortunately, it is not rare to hear that in the Middle Ages womenwere completely ignorant. The essay aims to prove the opposite, by clarifyingsome ambiguous concepts such as literacy and by presenting the varieties ofmedieval education. Moreover, it will linger on a new idea of womanhood whichdeveloped during the late Middle Ages, on the crucial role women played in theassessment of some cultural changes and the importance which was given tomothers in relation to the education of their children. Both men and women gotinvolved in the educational and environment, but in different ways. Despite beingconsidered inferior by men and despite living in a male-centered society, someof them succeeded in raising their voices and share their opinion, as it willbe shown with respect to Christine de Pizan. Education in the Middle AgesMedieval education is a very complex topic that has tobe introduced gradually. First of all, it is necessary to explain the medieval conceptof literacy.
Latin was the official language of the Church and proficiency inthe field was a requirement to be part of the clergy. A person was consideredliterate if they knew Latin (Green 3). From my standpoint, this is a veryimportant fact to bear in mind, because it means that the ability of readingand writing was not included in what was considered “literate”. Therefore, atthe time, whoever was not proficient in Latin was perceived as uneducated eventhough being perfectly able to read and write.
This view is controversial andsurely very different from the one people have nowadays. As it was explainedin class, inside of the Church women were perceived as inferior to men. To comprehendthis perception, one must resort to the Sacred Scriptures. In fact, at the verybeginning of the Bible, in the book of Genesis, it is explained that Godcreated Adam, whereas Eve was born from one of Adam’s ribs (Bell 754). Thisclearly established a hierarchical difference between the two genders since thestart of times. Moreover, women were defined by their bodies, while men bytheir minds and their souls. Consequently, very different paths were drawn formen and women, even in non-religious aspects of the medieval society.
Both genders received the same elementary education untilthe end of feudal times (King 45). Moreover, very often classes were given in cathedrals,but only a small number of them was open to girls (Kersev 190). This is an exampleof how education and religion were two closely related concepts at the time.
The situation drastically changed with the opening ofthe first universities in the 13th century. There, students weretaught with a Roman educational system and the activity they valued the mostwas debating. As it was pointed out before, the submission of women in thereligious world had expanded also to the laic sphere of society. In fact, womenwere excluded from the academic environment because perceived as inferior andunsuitable for it (Bell 742).
By not having access to the curriculum, an evenbigger gap was created between men and women. Nonetheless, this extremelymisogynistic treatment did not prevent many medieval women from getting aneducation. Before getting onto the subject of female education, itis important to mention that one’spossibilities to study probably did not exclusively depend on gender, but also onthe social class one belonged to. In fact, both laymen and laywomen of thelower classes rarely had the chance to get access to a higher education, bothreligious and secular. Some girls were sentto convents, where learning was a crucial aspect of the daily life (Kersev188). The convent curriculum included different teachings that aimed at theacquisition of both theoretical and practical skills. Not only did girls learnhow to sew and weave, but they were also taught in music, religion, manners andmorals and reading.
It is clear that this type of learning was built aroundChristian ethics and was offered to girls who in the future would haveeventually become nuns. Aswe have seen in class, in some convents, nuns were extremely devoted toknowledge. The Bridgettines, for example, who followed the morals of Bridget ofSweden, were allowed more time to study than praying. They were even able tocope well with the Latin language. Wealthy families turned to tutors for the education oftheir girls. A governess would very often come to the house to teach them socialmanners and graces. In addition, a professor was hired to teach vernacularreading and literature to the girls (Kersev 189).
Another option for daughtersof noblemen was court school. Courts had always been a very stimulatingenvironment for cultural exchange and knowledge, therefore girls who had thisunique opportunity were probably the luckiest ones. For example, when Christinede Pizan left Italy with her family and moved to the court of the French kingCharles the fifth, she received a very well structured philosophic andscientific education (Gabriel 4).
It is clear that women of the upper classes hadvarious educational options to choose from and that despite having beenexcluded from universities, they were far from being ignorant and they were skilledin different activities. Women’s relationship with booksReading is an essential part of the learning process,which requires a lot of practice in order to be mastered. Books have alwaysbeen considered the symbol of culture and knowledge, and in this chapter itwill be explored and analyzed the relationship medieval laywomen had with them.At the time, private reading was not a very popularactivity. However, towards the 12th century, some changes in thesociety favored its development. For example, the invention of the fireplace andof more spaces for leisure in the upper classes started creating the idea of readingas a thing that could be done privately at home (Bell 746).
Moreover, the birthof the print in the following centuries completely turned upside down theconception of reading and expanded the opportunities of book ownership. Notwithstanding,books were a luxury that only the upper classes could afford (Bell 747). As itwill be explained later on in the chapter, there were many women who read andowned books. First of all, it is worth mentioning that several ofthem struggled in finding a private space where to read. According to the viewthat prevailed at the time, women should not show any sign of intelligencebecause that would confer them authority, which was a thing only related tomen. One might claim that this view signals how much men were afraid of the intellectualcapacities of women and therefore had to find some excuses to limit theirpotential as much as possible.
In order to do so, they created some withdrawalrooms where they often isolated women so as to control them while they wereoccupied (Green 80). As Green points out in his article, women had to embodycertain characteristics, such as chastity. These rooms should have been a wayfor men to make sure that nothing happened while they were away.
This atrocityoften turned out to be a good opportunity for the secluded women, since theywere able to immerse themselves in books in a private space where no one wouldbother them. The majority of books owned by medieval laywomen wereof devotional nature. The most read ones in the 12th century weregospels, psalters and especially Books of Hours.
A Book of Hours was made of several types of prayerswhich had to be read and recited at precise times and it included gatherings ofbiblical material. Moreover, it could have many illustrations, both from theOld and the New Testaments (Bell 753). One could argue that laywomen focused somuch on devotional literature because of their inferior position inside of thechurch. Since they did not find themselves at ease with their situation, theyturned to private devotional reading as a way to escape the control of theChurch. Furthermore, girls got used to reading devotional vernacularworks at a very young age. In fact, these were a source for primary educationand for the acquisition of the reading abilities (Bell 757), which means theyhad familiarity with the genre.
The role of women in the rise ofthe vernacularWomen’s strong relationship with non-Latin books madethem become ambassadors of cultural change during the late Middle Ages. At themid-point of the 12th century, the European linguistic environmentsuffered a change which resulted in a gradual shift from Latin to the differentvernaculars as main languages of courts and societies (McCash 45). Women playeda pivotal role in the rise of the vernacular. Considering that not all of themreceived convent education, just a little portion of the female population hadknowledge in Latin (McCash 51). The first translations of Latin works to thevernacular were commissioned by a woman or by a community of women (Green 99).For example, Matilda of Scotland, the first wife of Henry I of England, commissionedthe translation of Latin works into Anglo-Norman for her ladies and Maidens(Bell 759). Due to the fact that most laywomen were untutored inthe Latin language and since they were used to reading in the vernacular, onmight argue that this opportunity stimulated the pursuit of a change that wouldeventually change the societal system. Therefore, it is clear that the purposewas to make all types of literature accessible to a larger portion of thepopulation.
In fact, as Dante mentions in his introduction to the Convivio, in which he slightly justifieshis choice of writing it in Italian and not in Latin, there were many peoplethat could benefit of this change, both women and men (McCash 52). Dante’swords made me realize that if he mentions women in his discourse it means that manyof them desired to have access to cultural material. This strengthens the pointthat the essay tried to prove in the first chapter.
Not being proficient inLatin did not entail ignorance or illiteracy as we intend it today.As a consequence of this linguistic evolution, women’sconsideration of themselves changed and they bravely explored new genres,benefiting of their talents. An example of a new way of writing in vernacularis the autobiography. Margery Kempe, with the help of an amanuensis, wrote thefirst autobiography of the English language, which is called The Book of Margery Kempe. A change in the artisticrepresentation of womanhoodDuring the Middle Ages, women were encouraged to modelthemselves on biblical heroines (Bell 752).
The fact that women read and ownedbooks might have changed also the image and the perception people had ofwomanhood. It can be observed by analyzing shifts in the artworks of the time. TheVirgin Mary was and still is considered to be the central female figure of theBible and therefore she represents a role model for every woman. Starting fromthe 12th century, she began to be portrayed while reading a book(Bell 761). This is a crucial detail that must not be ignored norunderestimated, since it coincided with the increase in the number of womenengaged with reading and literature. The image of the book in Christian art is a symbol forthe Word of God (Bell 762). Mary’s main characteristic had always beenchastity, but during the late Middle Ages she acquired a new essential trait,wisdom.
This phenomenon could be observed especially in paintings of theAnnunciation, when the archangel Gabriel came to Mary to tell her she was goingto give birth to the savior. Early illustrations of this scene show her with aspindle in her hands, which was later replaced by a book (Sheingorn 69). Shewas no longer characterized exclusively by her spiritual richness, but also byher intellect. After having taken this into account, one might wonderwhich was the motive of such change. My thought is that the artistic symbolismwas important in terms of popularity, everyone at the time was in contact withreligious artworks and could have witnessed the modification. Mary was a modelfor every woman and making her the embodiment of wisdom and knowledgestrengthened and gave importance to women who read and to their works. Moreover,this new perspective on the Virgin Mary clearly echoes the reality whichinspired artists (Sheingorn 75), a reality where women read and owned books. A further investigation of the religious iconography ofthe 14th century England shows additional changes in relation to thefigure of the Virgin Mary and her educational path.
First of all, it is fundamental to mention that thereare some incongruences regarding the Marian process of education (Sheingorn 70). Sometimes she was portrayed as she was beinggiven class in a temple, and other times while being taught by Saint Anne, hermother. Despite not being present in the canonical gospels, this scene/thelatter became extremely popular in late medieval art (Sheingorn 69). Image 11The image above represents the frontal part of an Opus Anglicanum altar of the 14thcentury, which is now part of the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museumin London (Sheingorn 70). By looking at it, one may notice the presence of someclear and basic details which confirm the act of teaching.
First of all, theopen book suggests that the two of them are using it as an educational resourceand that they are reading it. In addition, Anne is pointing directly at it asif she was explaining something to her daughter. What might strike the most is that in earlier timesthe figure of Anne seemed to have been inserted in the Scriptures exclusivelyto complete Christ’s genealogical tree, since everything is focused on hisincarnation (Sheingorn 72).
This suggests that the change was a meaningful oneand occurred for a reason. All of a sudden, saint Anne became a powerful rolemodel, responsible for the education of Mary. The image could be interpreted asa way to encourage mothers to foster home education and to play an active role inthe instruction of their children. That is precisely the message that Saint Jerome had triedto convey in one of his letters dated of the 4th century. He claimedthat it was one of women’s duties to be involved in their children’s moral andintellectual upbringing by saying that “instead of jewels or silk let daughters love the manuscripts of the Holy Scriptures, and in them let themprefer correctness …”2 (Bell 755). It also provesthat the relationship between mothers and daughters, especially at the time oflearning, had always been an important issue for some.
Christine de Pizan and her progressiveview on women’s role in educationChristine de Pizan is considered one the most activefigures in the defense of women’s rights during the Middle Ages. Born in Italyin 1364, Christine moved to France at a young age. The whole family went tolive at the court of Charles the fifth. There, as aforementioned, she receiveda very remarkable education, both philosophical and scientific. She was widowedat the age of twenty-five, because her husband, Etienne de Castel, died of anepidemic disease (Gabriel 5). Christine was therefore left alone with her threechildren. She did not tolerate the submissiveness that women ofher time had to deal with and throughout her life she was always determined tomake the difference and eventually found the strength to raise her voiceagainst gender discrimination.
Her opinion on the subject is very valuable forthe development of this essay, since, among her many contributions in favor ofgender equality, she focused on women’s education and on the importance of therelationship between mothers and daughters. These are the central topics of her Book of the Three Virtues, a completesource on feminine education, in which she addresses to women of every sociallayer (Gabriel 11). It is crucial to mention that she had a complicatedrelationship with her mother, who believed that a domestic instruction waseverything that a girl needed in order to fulfill her duties (Gabriel 13). Onemight argue that it was precisely her life experience what pushed her to writethe book. Despite having received a thorough education at court, Christinemight have realized that if it had not been for that, her mother would not havetaught her nothing more than sewing and weaving.
Christine believed that the purpose of femaleeducation had to be the acquisition of knowledge in relation to morals,something that only women could do. She claimed that knowledge on itself isuseless and that women had to be wise, not learned (Gabriel 13). This might beinterpreted as a criticism to male forms of education, which were entirelyfocused on knowledge acquisition.
Moral education could be exactly what made motherssuitable figures for the education of their children. Preparing them to enterhealthily and readily in society is a fundamental task which requires hardwork, time and especially patience. In The Book ofthe Three Virtues Christine pushes women to be serious and tough educatorsand to avoid trifles and frivolousness (Lorcin 42). One might desagree inrelation to her point of view.
Here, maybe unconsciously influenced by thegeneral view of the time, she is encouraging women to be less womanly and toimitate a manly behavior. She sees women’s emotiveness and natural tendency toempathy as a flaw, which could be instead used as an advantage. Educators, inorder to reach their goals, need to be on the same wavelength of their studentsand this can only be done through the creation of a human bond between the twocounterparts.
Finally, Christine the Pizan also lingered on theimportance for young girls to learn how to handle devotional books. She says,addressing mothers: “When her daughter is of the age of learning to read …one should bring her books of devotion and contemplation and those speaking ofmorality”3 (Bell 756). As it wasexplained in the first chapters, these types of books were largely used foreducational purposes. Therefore, they could pass from one generation of womento another, preserving the great contact with books of the time. ConclusionThis essay hastouched upon many different topics, some of which could not immediately seemrelated to one another. Nevertheless, they all contribute to the demonstrationof women’s important role in the cultural environment of the Middle Ages and inthe education of their children.
Despite not having access to universities,women, especially from the upper classes, often had the chance to get aneducation. Moreover, laywomen read a lot and owned many books. The inferiorstatus they were secluded to pushed them to make a change and make literaturemore accessible, by becoming agents of the linguistic shift which interestedthe European continent during the late Middle Ages. This change was alsoportrayed in the religious artworks of the time, where female figures acquiredintellectual and wise connotations that did not have before. Furthermore, theessay insisted on the role of mothers in the upbringing of their childrenthrough the example of Christine de Pizan and her educational works.
Inconclusion, it would be wrong to claim that in the Middle Ages women were notconsidered as inferior and that they did not lead their lives in a societycompletely dominated by men. Nevertheless, in various occasions they took theirsubmission and turned it into a strength, through which they managed to have animpact on their reality and to be influential in their own way. Women’s ignoranceis therefore a complete misconception that does not have to be fomented in thestudy of the cultural environment of the Middle Ages.1 Sourcefor the image: Sheingorn, Pamela.”‘The Wise Mother’: The Image of St. Anne Teaching the Virgin Mary.” Gesta, vol. 32, no.
1, 1993, p. 702 SaintJerome, Selected Letters, LoebClassical Library (London: Putnam & Co., 1933), pp. 343-653 Christine de Pizan, LeTresor de la Cite des Dames (Paris: Janot, 1536), fol. xxxiv. This book issometimes known as Le Livre des TroisVertus.