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Education Opportunities For Medieval Women

One 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.

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. Many could only read. 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.

In the 14th century, women increasingly became book owners and romance story readers. Some had books specially commissioned for them- beautifully illustrated Books of Hours.

Peasant Women
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.

Townswomen and middle-class urban 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 in manuscripts.

Noble women & upper class women
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. Her 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.

Copyright © Rosalie Gilbert
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