Women’s Educational and Cultural Importance in the Middle Ages

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The Middle Ages are an interesting period to study for several reasons. In particular because of the ten centuries-duration, which allows the acquisition of a broad view of the society of the time and the full understanding of the changes that it suffered. Nevertheless, it is often difficult to deal with this epoch, because of the lack of clear and precise documentation. This has led many to make generalizations about medieval culture and society, based on prejudices and stereotypes, as in the case of women’s education and their participation in the cultural development of their countries. Unfortunately, it is not rare to hear that in the Middle Ages women were completely ignorant. The essay aims to prove the opposite, by clarifying some ambiguous concepts such as literacy and by presenting the varieties of medieval education. Moreover, it will linger on a new idea of womanhood which developed during the late Middle Ages, on the crucial role women played in the assessment of some cultural changes and the importance which was given to mothers in relation to the education of their children. Both men and women got involved in the educational and environment, but in different ways. Despite being considered inferior by men and despite living in a male-centered society, some of them succeeded in raising their voices and share their opinion, as it will be shown with respect to Christine de Pizan.

Education in the Middle Ages

Medieval education is a very complex topic that has to be introduced gradually. First of all, it is necessary to explain the medieval concept of literacy. Latin was the official language of the Church and proficiency in the field was a requirement to be part of the clergy. A person was considered literate if they knew Latin (Green 3). From my standpoint, this is a very important fact to bear in mind, because it means that the ability of reading and writing was not included in what was considered “literate”. Therefore, at the time, whoever was not proficient in Latin was perceived as uneducated even though being perfectly able to read and write. This view is controversial and surely very different from the one people have nowadays.

As it was explained in class, inside of the Church women were perceived as inferior to men. To comprehend this perception, one must resort to the Sacred Scriptures. In fact, at the very beginning of the Bible, in the book of Genesis, it is explained that God created Adam, whereas Eve was born from one of Adam’s ribs (Bell 754). This clearly established a hierarchical difference between the two genders since the start of times. Moreover, women were defined by their bodies, while men by their minds and their souls. Consequently, very different paths were drawn for men and women, even in non-religious aspects of the medieval society. Both genders received the same elementary education until the 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 example of how education and religion were two closely related concepts at the time.

The situation drastically changed with the opening of the first universities in the 13th century. There, students were taught with a Roman educational system and the activity they valued the most was debating. As it was pointed out before, the submission of women in the religious world had expanded also to the laic sphere of society. In fact, women were excluded from the academic environment because perceived as inferior and unsuitable for it (Bell 742). By not having access to the curriculum, an even bigger gap was created between men and women. Nonetheless, this extremely misogynistic treatment did not prevent many medieval women from getting an education.

Before getting onto the subject of female education, it is important to mention that one’s possibilities to study probably did not exclusively depend on gender, but also on the social class one belonged to. In fact, both laymen and laywomen of the lower classes rarely had the chance to get access to a higher education, both religious and secular.

Some girls were sent to convents, where learning was a crucial aspect of the daily life (Kersev 188). The convent curriculum included different teachings that aimed at the acquisition of both theoretical and practical skills. Not only did girls learn how to sew and weave, but they were also taught in music, religion, manners and morals and reading. It is clear that this type of learning was built around Christian ethics and was offered to girls who in the future would have eventually become nuns. As we have seen in class, in some convents, nuns were extremely devoted to knowledge. The Bridgettines, for example, who followed the morals of Bridget of Sweden, were allowed more time to study than praying. They were even able to cope well with the Latin language.

Wealthy families turned to tutors for the education of their girls. A governess would very often come to the house to teach them social manners and graces. In addition, a professor was hired to teach vernacular reading and literature to the girls (Kersev 189). Another option for daughters of noblemen was court school. Courts had always been a very stimulating environment for cultural exchange and knowledge, therefore girls who had this unique opportunity were probably the luckiest ones. For example, when Christine de Pizan left Italy with her family and moved to the court of the French king Charles the fifth, she received a very well structured philosophic and scientific education (Gabriel 4). It is clear that women of the upper classes had various educational options to choose from and that despite having been excluded from universities, they were far from being ignorant and they were skilled in different activities.

Women’s relationship with books

Reading is an essential part of the learning process, which requires a lot of practice in order to be mastered. Books have always been considered the symbol of culture and knowledge, and in this chapter it will be explored and analyzed the relationship medieval laywomen had with them. At the time, private reading was not a very popular activity. However, towards the 12th century, some changes in the society favored its development. For example, the invention of the fireplace and of more spaces for leisure in the upper classes started creating the idea of reading as a thing that could be done privately at home (Bell 746). Moreover, the birth of the print in the following centuries completely turned upside down the conception of reading and expanded the opportunities of book ownership. Notwithstanding, books were a luxury that only the upper classes could afford (Bell 747). As it will be explained later on in the chapter, there were many women who read and owned books.

First of all, it is worth mentioning that several of them struggled in finding a private space where to read. According to the view that prevailed at the time, women should not show any sign of intelligence because that would confer them authority, which was a thing only related to men. One might claim that this view signals how much men were afraid of the intellectual capacities of women and therefore had to find some excuses to limit their potential as much as possible. In order to do so, they created some withdrawal rooms where they often isolated women so as to control them while they were occupied (Green 80). As Green points out in his article, women had to embody certain characteristics, such as chastity. These rooms should have been a way for men to make sure that nothing happened while they were away. This atrocity often turned out to be a good opportunity for the secluded women, since they were able to immerse themselves in books in a private space where no one would bother them. The majority of books owned by medieval laywomen were of devotional nature. The most read ones in the 12th century were gospels, psalters and especially Books of Hours.

A Book of Hours was made of several types of prayers which had to be read and recited at precise times and it included gatherings of biblical material. Moreover, it could have many illustrations, both from the Old and the New Testaments (Bell 753). One could argue that laywomen focused so much on devotional literature because of their inferior position inside of the church. Since they did not find themselves at ease with their situation, they turned to private devotional reading as a way to escape the control of the Church. Furthermore, girls got used to reading devotional vernacular works at a very young age. In fact, these were a source for primary education and for the acquisition of the reading abilities (Bell 757), which means they had familiarity with the genre. The role of women in the rise of the vernacular

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Women’s strong relationship with non-Latin books made them become ambassadors of cultural change during the late Middle Ages. At the mid-point of the 12th century, the European linguistic environment suffered a change which resulted in a gradual shift from Latin to the different vernaculars as main languages of courts and societies (McCash 45). Women played a pivotal role in the rise of the vernacular. Considering that not all of them received convent education, just a little portion of the female population had knowledge in Latin (McCash 51). The first translations of Latin works to the vernacular 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, commissioned the translation of Latin works into Anglo-Norman for her ladies and Maidens (Bell 759).

Due to the fact that most laywomen were untutored in the Latin language and since they were used to reading in the vernacular, on might argue that this opportunity stimulated the pursuit of a change that would eventually change the societal system. Therefore, it is clear that the purpose was to make all types of literature accessible to a larger portion of the population. In fact, as Dante mentions in his introduction to the Convivio, in which he slightly justifies his choice of writing it in Italian and not in Latin, there were many people that could benefit of this change, both women and men (McCash 52). Dante’s words made me realize that if he mentions women in his discourse it means that many of them desired to have access to cultural material. This strengthens the point that the essay tried to prove in the first chapter. Not being proficient in Latin did not entail ignorance or illiteracy as we intend it today.

As a consequence of this linguistic evolution, women’s consideration of themselves changed and they bravely explored new genres, benefiting of their talents. An example of a new way of writing in vernacular is the autobiography. Margery Kempe, with the help of an amanuensis, wrote the first autobiography of the English language, which is called The Book of Margery Kempe.

A change in the artistic representation of womanhood

During the Middle Ages, women were encouraged to model themselves on biblical heroines (Bell 752). The fact that women read and owned books might have changed also the image and the perception people had of womanhood. It can be observed by analyzing shifts in the artworks of the time. The Virgin Mary was and still is considered to be the central female figure of the Bible and therefore she represents a role model for every woman. Starting from the 12th century, she began to be portrayed while reading a book (Bell 761). This is a crucial detail that must not be ignored nor underestimated, since it coincided with the increase in the number of women engaged with reading and literature.

The image of the book in Christian art is a symbol for the Word of God (Bell 762). Mary’s main characteristic had always been chastity, but during the late Middle Ages she acquired a new essential trait, wisdom. This phenomenon could be observed especially in paintings of the Annunciation, when the archangel Gabriel came to Mary to tell her she was going to give birth to the savior. Early illustrations of this scene show her with a spindle in her hands, which was later replaced by a book (Sheingorn 69). She was no longer characterized exclusively by her spiritual richness, but also by her intellect.

After having taken this into account, one might wonder which was the motive of such change. My thought is that the artistic symbolism was important in terms of popularity, everyone at the time was in contact with religious artworks and could have witnessed the modification. Mary was a model for every woman and making her the embodiment of wisdom and knowledge strengthened and gave importance to women who read and to their works. Moreover, this new perspective on the Virgin Mary clearly echoes the reality which inspired artists (Sheingorn 75), a reality where women read and owned books. A further investigation of the religious iconography of the 14th century England shows additional changes in relation to the figure of the Virgin Mary and her educational path.

First of all, it is fundamental to mention that there are some incongruences regarding the Marian process of education (Sheingorn 70). Sometimes she was portrayed as she was being given class in a temple, and other times while being taught by Saint Anne, her mother. Despite not being present in the canonical gospels, this scene/the latter became extremely popular in late medieval art (Sheingorn 69). This suggests that the change was a meaningful one and occurred for a reason. All of a sudden, saint Anne became a powerful role model, responsible for the education of Mary. The image could be interpreted as a way to encourage mothers to foster home education and to play an active role in the instruction of their children.

That is precisely the message that Saint Jerome had tried to convey in one of his letters dated of the 4th century. He claimed that it was one of women’s duties to be involved in their children’s moral and intellectual upbringing by saying that “instead of jewels or silk let [ daughters] love the manuscripts of the Holy Scriptures, and in them let them prefer correctness”. It also proves that the relationship between mothers and daughters, especially at the time of learning, had always been an important issue for some. Christine de Pizan and her progressive view on women’s role in education Christine de Pizan is considered one the most active figures in the defense of women’s rights during the Middle Ages. Born in Italy in 1364, Christine moved to France at a young age. The whole family went to live at the court of Charles the fifth. There, as aforementioned, she received a very remarkable education, both philosophical and scientific. She was widowed at the age of twenty-five, because her husband, Etienne de Castel, died of an epidemic disease (Gabriel 5). Christine was therefore left alone with her three children. She did not tolerate the submissiveness that women of her time had to deal with and throughout her life she was always determined to make the difference and eventually found the strength to raise her voice against gender discrimination. Her opinion on the subject is very valuable for the development of this essay, since, among her many contributions in favor of gender equality, she focused on women’s education and on the importance of the relationship between mothers and daughters.

These are the central topics of her Book of the Three Virtues, a complete source on feminine education, in which she addresses to women of every social layer (Gabriel 11). It is crucial to mention that she had a complicated relationship with her mother, who believed that a domestic instruction was everything that a girl needed in order to fulfill her duties (Gabriel 13). One might argue that it was precisely her life experience what pushed her to write the book. Despite having received a thorough education at court, Christine might have realized that if it had not been for that, her mother would not have taught her nothing more than sewing and weaving.

Christine believed that the purpose of female education had to be the acquisition of knowledge in relation to morals, something that only women could do. She claimed that knowledge on itself is useless and that women had to be wise, not learned (Gabriel 13). This might be interpreted as a criticism to male forms of education, which were entirely focused on knowledge acquisition. Moral education could be exactly what made mothers suitable figures for the education of their children. Preparing them to enter healthily and readily in society is a fundamental task which requires hard work, time and especially patience.

In The Book of the Three Virtues Christine pushes women to be serious and tough educators and to avoid trifles and frivolousness (Lorcin 42). One might desagree in relation to her point of view. Here, maybe unconsciously influenced by the general view of the time, she is encouraging women to be less womanly and to imitate a manly behavior. She sees women’s emotiveness and natural tendency to empathy as a flaw, which could be instead used as an advantage. Educators, in order to reach their goals, need to be on the same wavelength of their students and this can only be done through the creation of a human bond between the two counterparts.

Finally, Christine the Pizan also lingered on the importance 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 of morality”[3] (Bell 756). As it was explained in the first chapters, these types of books were largely used for educational purposes. Therefore, they could pass from one generation of women to another, preserving the great contact with books of the time.


This essay has touched upon many different topics, some of which could not immediately seem related to one another. Nevertheless, they all contribute to the demonstration of women’s important role in the cultural environment of the Middle Ages and in the education of their children. Despite not having access to universities, women, especially from the upper classes, often had the chance to get an education. Moreover, laywomen read a lot and owned many books. The inferior status they were secluded to pushed them to make a change and make literature more accessible, by becoming agents of the linguistic shift which interested the European continent during the late Middle Ages. This change was also portrayed in the religious artworks of the time, where female figures acquired intellectual and wise connotations that did not have before. Furthermore, the essay insisted on the role of mothers in the upbringing of their children through the example of Christine de Pizan and her educational works. In conclusion, it would be wrong to claim that in the Middle Ages women were not considered as inferior and that they did not lead their lives in a society completely dominated by men. Nevertheless, in various occasions they took their submission and turned it into a strength, through which they managed to have an impact on their reality and to be influential in their own way. Women’s ignorance is therefore a complete misconception that does not have to be fomented in the study of the cultural environment of the Middle Ages.

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