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Case 13 - Learned Women

English and European women of the Renaissance wrote in a variety of genres and on many subjects, as did their male contemporaries. Many of the writers featured in this case were considered to be the highest examples of learned women in their age. One of them, Elizabeth Jane Weston, was a muchrespected Neo-Latin poet among her European male peers. Many of these women were also interested in the improvement of their own sex through better education. Anna Maria van Schurman defended learning for women, while Hannah Woolley and Mary Astell wrote books setting out the skills they thought women should learn. Others such as Christine de Pisan and Lucrezia Marinella defended women against the many attacks from men in an ongoing battle known as the “quarrel of women.” At a time when most women had little education, these women were living examples of greater possibilities for their sex.

Christine de Pisan. Livre de la cité des dames. English. London, 1521

Mary Astell. Serious Proposal to the Ladies. Part 1. London, 1694

Anna Maria van Schurman. Dissertatio de ingenii muliebris ad doctrinam. English. London, 1659

Bathsua Makin. An Essay to Revive the Antient Education of Gentlewomen. London, 1673

Hannah Woolley. A Guide to Ladies, Gentlewomen and Maids. London, 1668

Lucrezia Marinella. La nobilita, et l’eccellenza delle donne, co’ diffetti, et mancamenti de gli huomini. Venice, 1601

It might be said that Christine de Pisan was the first great female scholar in the European Renaissance to make a living through her writings. Reared at the French court of Charles V, she studied the classics, and, after her husband died, she supported herself and her children by writing. Her treatise The City of Ladies, written in French ca. 1404-05 presents the achievements of historical and contemporary women. “There is no man who could sum up the enormous benefits which have come about through women,” she writes, “and I proved this for you with the examples of the noble ladies who gave the sciences and arts to the world.” †


Pisan's desire that women be both educated and appreciated is echoed by the many women who wrote in the centuries after her. A poet and intellectual, Mary Astell was educated in philosophy and theology by her uncle. She felt strongly that women ought to receive a good education. “How can you be content to be in the World like Tulips in a Garden,” she asked, “to make a fine shew and be good for nothing?” A life of the mind, she writes in this book, is “a Matter infinitely more worthy your Debates, than what Colours are most agreeable, or what’s the Dress becomes you best?"


The German-Dutch scholar, religious leader, and artist Anna Maria van Schurman spent most of her life in the Netherlands, where she corresponded with a network of intellectual women across Europe. The Learned Maid is her most famous work, first published in Latin in 1641. Van Schurman argued that women who had the means and no family responsibilities should be able to study in all fields. She herself knew ten languages and was knowledgeable in history, theology, and astronomy, among other disciplines.


With knowledge of six languages, Bathsua Makin was known as the greatest female scholar in England, and she corresponded with fellow scholar Anna Maria van Schurman in the Netherlands. She became tutor to Princess Elizabeth, the daughter of Charles I, and this experience no doubt influenced her best-known work, the Education of Gentlewomen. She writes: “Were a competent number of Schools erected to Educate Ladyes ingenuously, methinks I see how asham’d Men would be of their Ignorance.” And she adds, “Had God intended Women onely as a finer sort of Cattle, he would have not made them reasonable.”


Hannah Woolley was a skilled medical practitioner and published books that included cooking and medicinal recipes as well as advice on household management. In her Guide she addresses all levels of women in the home from mistresses to maids, mixing advice on general behavior, love, and childbirth with recipes for preserved pears, pumpkin pie, and digestive remedies. She says that such a book covering the many facets of women’s lives “I have not met with in any language.”


Prolific Venetian poet Lucrezia Marinella also turned to a defense of her own sex in response to a vicious attack on women published by Giuseppe Passi in 1599. In Part I she praises women for their many virtues, and in Part II she condemns men for the same vices Passi had given to women. She writes: “My desire is to make this truth shine forth to everybody, that the female sex is nobler and more excellent than the male. I hope to demonstrate this with … examples, so that every man, no matter how stubborn, will be compelled to confirm it with his own mouth.” ††



(Translated by Earl Jeffrey Richards)
†† (Translation by Anne Dunhill)

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