A MEDIEVAL WOMAN'S LIFE - AT HOME
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& Literacy Among 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, 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.
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
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.
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.
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
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