By Lucie Laumonier
Centered on female education in the European Middle Ages – in particular in the later Middle Ages – this article explores the ins and outs of female literacy. “Literacy” is a disputed notion when applied to the Middle Ages.
For a long time and from the standpoint of many medieval intellectuals, literacy was measured with regards to Latin. Those who did not know Latin were considered illiterate, even if they could read and write vernacular languages. It won’t come as a surprise to readers, then, that Latin education was usually limited to women from the social elite, who received an education in a monastic setting, or at home with a private tutor.
By the fourteenth century, however, vernacular languages had become vehicles of knowledge. In France, for example, the reign of Charles V (r. 1364–1380) saw the rise of literary and scientific writings in French. An impressive new intellectual tradition in vernacular languages bloomed across Europe, whose authors, such as Christine de Pizan, attained a respected status.
Degrees of Literacy
Medieval reading was taught through the proxy of Latin, whether the learners would end up learning Latin or not. The process of learning to read through Latin illuminates the existence of intermediate levels between full literacy and complete illiteracy that connect to the ability to read and potentially write vernacular languages.
Anyone able to read in the Latin alphabet and associate sounds with letters is able to read Latin, German, Portuguese, or French, and so forth. But “phonetic literacy” (the ability to pronounce words) does not signify understanding their meaning. A number of medieval readers could pronounce a Latin text without grasping its meaning.
A side effect of this teaching method is that people able to read letters and associate them with sounds can apply it to their maternal tongue, from which they get meaning, understanding, and significance. Learning to read in Latin, therefore, leads to the ability to read in one’s own language.
Writing requires a different skillset, greater in difficulty than reading. Besides the ability to form letters, writing requires an understanding of grammar and a capacity for literary composition. From signing one’s name to writing poetry, there existed – and still exists – a wide range of intermediary levels.
In the later Middle Ages, vernacular literacy was more widespread than Latin literacy, but it was still the preserve of the elite. How many people would be recognized as literate is left to guesswork. What is certain is that more people could read than write, and that literacy was more common for the elite than for common people.
The rise of literacy in the fourteenth century went hand in hand with growing attention to models of educated women. A rich collection of imagery of women reading developed around Anne teaching the Virgin Mary to read, and of the Virgin Mary reading during the scene of the Annunciation or at other important moments of her life.
According to D. H. Green in Women Readers in the Middle Ages, “the popularity of this image met an obvious need on the part of literate women, justifying their reading practice against any opposition they faced by providing them with an unassailable role model.”
Scenes featuring Mary reading appeared in a growing number of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century psalters and Books of Hours owned by elite literate women. Whether they actually understood the content of the Latin prayers is uncertain – historians argue that women were more often literate in vernacular languages than in Latin. Women played a great role in the promotion of vernacular literature.
Books of prayers were also used to teach children or young teenagers how to read. Christine de Pizan, for instance, recommended that mothers gave a devotional book to their daughters when they were old enough to learn to read.
Girls’ Education at Schools
Elite girls and teenagers were most likely to read and write. They received education at a convent, or at home through private tutoring. Evidence of this is widespread across Europe. Private tutoring was, however, expensive and reserved for the elite.
In the later Middle Ages, parents willing to give a formal education to their daughters at a lesser cost than private tutoring could send them to secular schools. Secular schools open to girls existed in cities of northern Italy, and in the Low Countries, Germany, Paris, and a handful of large French cities.
A famous representation of schoolgirls and their schoolmistress comes from a mid-fifteenth-century Flemish manuscript housed at the British Library. The illumination depicts a female teacher seated on a chair in front of a small group of girls, two of which hold open books. In 1380, Paris counted 21 schoolmistresses and 41 schoolmasters who taught girls and boys in secular schools. In Valenciennes, France, the local school counted 516 pupils in 1386, among which 145 were girls (28%). Some schools were single sex, with schoolmistresses teaching girls and schoolmasters teaching boys, but some were coeducational.
The practice of sending girls to school was probably still uncommon and mainly concerned people from society’s upper ranks. Middling and poor children were sent off to an apprenticeship or learned a trade at home rather than attend school. These children could incidentally learn to read if they came into contact with a learned individual willing to teach them. Unfortunately, there is insufficient information available on informal educational processes.
Some optimistic historians contend that, in a city such as Valenciennes where many children were schooled, at the end of the fifteenth century, 70% of the population had basic reading and writing skills. Such high rates of literacy cannot be applied to the entire population of France or Europe. Less optimistic historians consider that only 10% of the European population was literate when the fifteenth century ended. Such low ratios of literacy actually represent an estimate of Latin literacy.
The historical “truth” lies somewhere in between. At the end of the Middle Ages, vernacular literacy was more widespread than in the prior centuries for women and men alike. Yet, a lower proportion of women than of men were literate. And women from the upper levels of society had more opportunities than women from the common and middling milieu to acquire reading and writing skills. Yet, when the Middle Ages ended, female literacy was far from being out of the ordinary.
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.
Top Image: British Library MS Harley MS 2897 fol.340v