& Literacy Among Medieval Women
PEASANT WOMEN - TOWNSWOMEN - NOBLE WOMEN
of the great medieval myths is that women could neither read nor
write and were completely dependent upon others to do these for
her. Nothing could be further from the truth, although educational
opportunities for medieval women, like so many other things, depended
on a woman's station at birth. Many women could both read and
write to some extent. The frequency which this occurred increased
as the medieval period progressed from century to century.
Pictured at right is a detail from
a 1445 Netherlands prayerbook by the Masters of the Gold Scrolls.
At this period, it was not uncommon for women to be able to read
and to teach others to do so.
Peasant women has far less opportunity for a formal education
than her wealthy counterpart. Many received little or no education
unless they lived in or near the town. For the most part, the
extent of their learning was the alphabet and verbal religion
instruction. Peasants were generally employed in outdoor duties
and a written record of her household expenses was not necessary.
The primary teachers of small girls
were their own mothers or grandmothers. Girls assisted their mothers
at a very young age. Jobs such as pulling of wool for spinning,
weeding in the garden, sewing, cooking and caring for the chickens
prepared girls to have the skills they would use in later life
as wives and mothers. Girls learned to hand-sew clothing and make
repairs, like darning, at a young age so that when a young woman
became head of her own household, she would be adequately prepared
to clothe her family in durable and well-made clothing making
the best of what resources were available to her.
and middle-class women
Most middle class girls were taught to read and write. A woman's
education started at home under the care of her mother or nurse.
Some girls had the opportunity to be educated by being sent to
a nunnery and learning to read and write there under the supervision
of educated women, although this would only be an option for daughters
of wealthy businessman. Many
families thought it more important for a girl to be better educated
with proper manners than intellectual lessons, however those who
wished their daughters to marry well, saw the value of a daughter
who could read and write well. Such a young woman could make a
valuable wife and therefore had better marriage prospects. A woman
who could not read or write with proficiency could hardly be expected
to run a successful household.
Many wealthy townswomen commissioned
prayer books which could be read to their daughters for their
spiritual education. Women were not expected to make a living
from writing, and indeed, it seems that chroniclers of the medieval
period are almost entirely men.
One example of a women whose literacy skills were of a high standard
is that of French writer, Christine de Pisan. Shown at left is
a self portrait from 1364-1430 taken from the Works of Christine
de Pisan. Her books were written for an exclusive audience
of female readers and incorporated themes which were relevant
to women. The fact that her books were written for women tells
us that there were enough women educated well enough to read them.
Christine was married at 15 and a widowed woman by 25 who supported
her three children with her writing.
The image shown at left is a detail
from a prayer book owned by Anne de Bretane, a mother, who commissioned
the prayer book herself. It shows a woman learning to read in
order to study the scriptures. There are many images of this kind
It was not uncommon for daughters of wealthy nobles and upper
class families to be educated in a nunnery. Such a girl would
also have her spiritual education tended to as well as learning
to read and write. Upper class girls would often be sent to other
households to learn other aspects of her education which would
prepare her for marriage.
A noble woman's daughter might also
learn literacy from a nurse or someone especially employed for
that purpose. In a world where a nobleman's wife was expected
to run not only her own household, but that of her husband's estates
in his absence, it was imperative that she be literate and have
reasonable mathematical skills so that she might run these with
efficiency and be able to check whether her household costings
seemed reasonable. She was not responsible for all expenditure
of the household, but certainly needed to know enough about business
management to see that it was being run properly.
Queen Anne, wife of Richard II, brought
many books and illustrators from her native Bohemia with her to
England and enjoyed reading. Wills during Chaucer's period show
that many women bequeathed books to other women- showing that
women of all generations were literate and read for pleasure.
These books were both devotional and works of romance. One example
is is the 1390-1391 will of the Countess of Devon, Margaret Courtenay.
books included primers, a medical book and stories of Tristram,
Merlin and Arthur. These treasures she left to her daughters and
a woman friend. Her daughters also were left books from her husband.
No books were left to her sons.
Young girls were taught to read,
write, tell stories, read romances and judge the merits of poetry.
They often undertook singing lessons and were instructed in one
or more musical instruments. It goes without saying that a noble
woman was well-schooled in manners and courtesy. Lack of such
refinement did not encourage social advancement.
A noble woman might also have read for leisure- romances and poems
as well as holy scriptures. There are many instances where a husband
might learn to read and write from his better-educated wife. Shown
above at left is a detail from the 1427 Merode Altarpiece
by Campin showing a noble women reading.