MIA: Library: Mary Beard, Woman as a Force in History, 1946
Woman as a Force in History. Mary Beard 1946
Evidences in Mediaeval Educational and Intellectual Interests
IN THE PROTESTANT world, where the “rights” of women were first formally proclaimed in manifestos, it has been generally assumed, at least until recent times, that the Catholic Church was absolutely opposed to the education of lay people, and that the education of women in convents and by nuns is to be viewed as of little or no import in the development of Western civilization. How did this misunderstanding occur?
To some extent it was due to the fact that formal education in its upper ranges, particularly in mediaeval universities, was confined largely to the training of men for the priesthood and that men who enjoyed that privilege wrote so many treatises, chronicles, and works on theology. Apart from the tendency of Protestant critics to paint the “dark ages” as blacker than they really were, this conception was also due in no small measure to the neglect of woman by historians, both Catholic and Protestant ‘ and their persistent habit of publicizing men as if they had made all the history worth noting. In these circumstances it is difficult to see the tree of women’s education in the forest of controversial and masculine literature.
It is true that many students of the middle ages have noted that women in the convents were educated by some process and often conducted schools for the training of nuns and the education of daughters of the upper classes in the neighborhood in the interest of domestic life and courtly society. Yet relatively slight consideration has been given to the larger place which educated women held in the mediaeval period.
Although it is easy to select from the bulky writings of clerics, early and late, passages which treat woman as dangerous, if not inferior – a being to be kept down and away from learning – such passages can be easily paralleled by other mediaeval writings which demonstrate that this was not a universal theory of the Church and was indeed far from according with the practices of the middle ages. There were numerous Catholic writers and teachers of the time who held other ideas of woman’s “place” in society. Among the Dominican mystics were many men who made a special point of teaching women and encouraging them to aid in awakening the public to the importance of a deeper religious life. Pierre Dubois (c. 1250-1311) for instance argued that, since crusades had failed to conquer the Infidel by violence, girls should be taught theology and medicine and sent out as missionaries to overcome the Infidel by the sword of the spirit and service.
William Occam, the great English schoolman who was often in collision with Church authorities, believed that intuition was the basis of knowledge; that will – not intellect as the scholastics conceived intellect – was the primary faculty of the human soul. He had faith in natural moral intelligence. He demanded that the Church be ruled by world councils instead of autocratically and he asked why women, who have souls to save, should not be allowed to vote in such councils. It is fair to infer that if Occam deemed women worthy of membership in such assemblies, he thought of them as possessing the intellectual and moral powers requisite to the responsibilities involved.
In some respects, certainly, the customary way of dismissing the intellectual life of women in the middle ages, with that of the masses in general, has been due to mediaeval writings, especially for the early centuries of the period. As Samuel Dill remarks in his Roman Society in Gaul in the Merovingian Age, speaking of the life of the common people, the fragmentary chronicles of the time were chiefly concerned with kings, their great officers, and nobles; only here and there from the scribes, particularly in their lives of the Saints, are to be caught glimpses of the people-at-large and their conditions.
For centuries books that were available even to the great scholars were few in number. The distinguished Bernard of Chartres who died about 1130, called “perhaps the greatest classical teacher north of the Alps during the middle ages,” had a collection of only twenty-four books which he bequeathed to the cathedral library. Most books were written by members of the higher clergy and dealt mainly with matters theological or the doings of kings, princes, saints, and to some extent the upper classes generally. The intellectual and moral interests of the people were expressed orally for the most part and carried along in the stream of time mainly by memory and recitation.
Before the fourteenth century, the chief written works made available to the people were psalters and manuals of devotion. But as modern investigations have discovered there was an increasing number of books, fragments, and fugitive pieces in circulation as the centuries passed, especially after the invention of printing. Laymen and laywomen singly and in groups were then reading more and discussing more kinds of books.
The Education of Women a Reality
Whatever was the weight of Church authority against the education of women and their right to an intellectual life of their own, records of the middle ages, though as yet meagerly explored for this particular kind of information, certainly reveal women, high and low, receiving an education by some process, pursuing intellectual interests, reading, writing, expounding, and corresponding with one another and with learned men. Voluminous writing was done by women, particularly those associated with the mystics. A specific citation, from among many, gives concreteness to the generalization: in the documents of Coulton, Life in the Middle Ages, are letters from the correspondence between Christina von Stommeln, born in a farming family in 1242, with Peter of Sweden, a Dominican friar, and with Brother Maurice, an undergraduate at Paris. The letters deal mainly with matters of religious experience. But they convey two striking facts relative to woman’s role in the intellectual life of the middle ages: here was a gifted woman with genuine talent for literary expression; and it seemed to be taken as a matter of course that she should be engaged in correspondence with two brethren of the Church dedicated to intellectual pursuits.
That the education of women was going on far and wide in Europe is demonstrated in innumerable documents. One may find, as items of evidence, stories Eke the following. In the early years of the eleventh century, Hadwig, daughter of the Duke of Bavaria and after the death of her husband Duchess of Suabia, acquired, by the aid of tutors, proficiency in the Greek language. Then she took up the study of Latin literature; and later employed the famous monk Ekkehard to give her additional instruction at her castle, Hohenwiel. In recounting a thirteenth-century miracle Thomas of Chantipre in Brabant noted that a mistress of a village taught “the daughters of the rich.” Moreover, it was a common practice for the lady of the castle to give instruction not only to girls, but also to boys committed to her care.
For girls Geoffrey de la Tour-Landry’s fourteenth-century book on chivalry became an exceedingly popular text, indicative of the number of young and older women who could read. It was in time translated into German and English and by the middle of the sixteenth century it had passed through seven editions in three languages. It advised brides to honor and obey husbands and taught them ingenuity in obedience: how to win wealth, power, and prestige by discreet methods in dealing with men and their relatives. The large circulation gained by the book was not only a sign that women were reading in the late middle ages. It also signified that in “the days of chivalry” women were interested in “getting on in the world.”
In the life and writings of Geoffrey’s contemporary, jean Froissart, who was born in 1338 and lived until about 1410, is another testament in respect of mediaeval women and their education. In his autobiographical work, jean tells of his own education in a little school at his town in France. He states that he was often beaten at school and in turn he beat up other boys. But he was particularly interested in commenting on the girls who sat on school benches with him. That girls were there was not strange, for coeducation in the lower schools was often the case in his time. He liked to exchange apples, pears, and trinkets with the girls; and, when he was about the age of fourteen, jean fell in love with a girl whom he found sitting under a tree reading a romance. They read for a while together, and she asked him whether he would lend her other romances. He had one and granted this favor after slipping between the pages a ballad of his own by way of commending himself to her. In vain. She married another man and on meeting jean at a garden party she tore a lock out of his head with such violence as to convince him at last that their affair was at an end.
Evidently girls studied at schools in the fourteenth century. They might marry to suit themselves; and, if a suitor was objectionable, the tender and timid creature might tear the hair out of his head. Surely this was no picture of the modest female who, Geoffrey de la Tour-Landry seemed to think, had once existed, lived no more, but might be resurrected by reading the book he wrote for the education of his daughters.
Available documents permit no comparative judgment as to the nature and extent of women’s education in the countries of the Western world. Those to which access is easy may be interpreted to mean that German or Italian women had the best education of the middle ages. The convents were centers of education of a formal kind. The number of women’s religious orders in parts of Germany exceeded the number of men’s orders and one might infer from this that numerous German women were formally educated.
Humanizing Education – Individual, Civic, and Philosophic
Many things conspired to give leadership and acclaim in education and letters to the women of Italy, earlier than to women of other countries. Italy was the original home of the revival of the Latin classics and it was to Italy that the choicest of Greek classics were brought from Byzantium, before and after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. To Italy came able scholars and tutors straight from the Near East; and at their hands, or under their influence, Greek and Latin grammars and texts of the classics were issued in profusion.
With the revival of classical learning came the humanizing of intellectual interest, knowledge, and public measures; that is, thought and action were directed by this learning to human concerns, as distinguished from the divine, and to the human race in general, as distinguished from individual salvation and particular peoples. Now educated men and women in Italy had at their command, for example, the great histories written by Greek and Roman authorities in antiquity and were attracted by the difference between these human and secular works and the monkish chronicles which, besides being fragmentary, twisted the story of the past to fit theological conceptions of the universe. Now Italian men and women were in possession of literary and philosophic works dealing entirely with the great human and nature subjects, without regard for those “ultimate causes” with which theologians occupied themselves on the basis of theories and convictions respecting the nature and designs of God. Moreover, instead of the degraded Latin so often employed by monkish chroniclers, Italian men and women now had models of writing by Greek and Roman thinkers and stylists, inviting them to lofty aspirations and lucid expressions whether in poetry, letters, the arts, history, philosophy, or politics.
In the promotion of the new learning, two tasks had to be carried out. The first included the recovery of additional classical works, the preparation of critical editions, the reissue of the best in manuscript form and, after the invention of printing, in book form, and critical study of the new texts. The second was the dissemination of the knowledge derived from this critical study.
The number of women who devoted themselves to scholarship was by no means as large as the number of men, for reasons other than the lack of talents; but in the fifteenth century and early sixteenth century many Italian women displayed the highest technical competence in the study, interpretation, and exposition of the revived humanist learning. Some of them, for example Isotta Nogarola, we are told by Dr. G. R. Potter in The Cambridge Mediaeval History (Volume VIII, Chapter XXIII), “could hold their own in matters of scholarship with the best of their male contemporaries and ... were accepted and even acclaimed everywhere.”
According to Dr. H. J. Mozans’ Women in Science, women took “an active part in the great educational movement inaugurated by the revival of learning” and won “the highest honors for their sex in every department of science, art, and learning... . The universities, which had been opened to them at the close of the middle ages, gladly conferred upon them the doctorate, and eagerly welcomed them to the chairs of some of their most important faculties... . Cecelia Gonzaga, pupil of the celebrated humanist, Vittorino da Feltre, read the gospels in Greek when she was only seven years old. Isotta and Ginevra Nogarola, pupils of the humanist, Guarino Verronese, likewise distinguished themselves at an early age by their rare knowledge of Latin and Greek... . Livia Chiavello, of Fabriano, was celebrated as one of the most brilliant representatives of the Petrarchian school... . Cassandra Fidele, of Venice, deserved, according to Poliziano, the noted Florentine humanist, to be ranked with that famous universal genius, Pico de la Mirandola. So extensive were her attainments that in addition to being a thorough mistress of Latin and Greek, she was likewise distinguished in music, eloquence, philosophy, and even theology... . But for the extent and variety of her attainments, Tarquinia Molza seems to have eclipsed all her contemporaries. Not only did she excel in poetry and the fine arts, she also had a rare knowledge of astronomy and mathematics, Latin, Greek and Hebrew. So great was the esteem in which she was held that the senate of Rome conferred upon her the singular honor of Roman citizenship, transmissible in perpetuity to her descendants.”
In nearly every great intellectual center of Italy women were lecturing on literature and philosophy, and religious faith could not escape impacts of the new knowledge. They were studying medicine and natural science in the light of pagan learning in these subjects. Great Italian women teachers of the awakening “sent forth such students as Moritz von Spiegelberg and Rudolph Agricola to reform the instruction of Deventer and Zwoll and prepare the way for Erasmus and Reuchlin.”
Some of the women crossed the Alps themselves, as the ancient learning was said to do when Erasmus and other returning students bore back to outlying countries the knowledge gleaned in Italy. One of the most distinguished classical scholars of the age, Olympia Morata, for example, meeting difficulties at Renee’s court where the duchess and all her friends were persecuted by the Duke for their religious independence, fled to Germany, with a young Bavarian student of medicine and philosophy, and was planning to continue her teaching of the classics in Heidelberg, to which she had been invited, when an untimely death closed her career.
In the dissemination of the new learning among the Italian people, especially among the rich but including some not as well off in this world’s goods, five methods were widely and intensively employed: tutoring and self-directed study in families, education in schools, humanist lecturing, conversations in small private groups and larger coteries, and correspondence.
I As soon as the Renaissance had got under way, Italian women in the rich commercial cities and at ducal or princely courts, such as Ferrara and Urbino, turned with avidity to the study and discussion of Greek and Roman literature.
While men of the governing class were away from their castles fighting in wars, women and girls of their families thus “improved their minds” and displayed their accomplishments to the warriors when they came home on furloughs. French officers and Spanish ambassadors who were guests in the great houses from time to time were so impressed that they let their own women relatives and friends know how backward they were and how advisable it would be for them to catch up with Italian women. When Erasmus, Grocyn, and Colet joined in the student pilgrimage to Italy early in the sixteenth century, they found women immersed in the ancient languages and lore, surrounded by poets, artists, scholars, and writers from near and distant places as companions in the new intellectual movement.
This linguistic and literary development was not confined to the ruling circles, however. Classical schools for girls and boys were opened in Italian cities, giving to the business and professional circles, as well as to patricians, opportunities to acquire knowledge of the ancient languages and the natural, or secular, philosophies embodied in Greek and Latin literature. Here entered the insurgent bourgeois influence which Henry Adams, looking back from the twentieth century and his vantage point within it, concluded was an invincible menace to the throne of Mary, Queen of Heaven.
Among the outstanding Italians of the fifteenth century who promoted education, letters, and arts were Gian Francesco Gonzaga II and his wife, Paola Malatesta, who brought to Mantua in 1425 the exceptional humanist, Vittorino da Feltre, and established him there as the teacher of their sons and daughters. The Gonzagas took it as a matter of course that their daughters should have the same kind of instruction as their sons – in an age when women, according to a tradition of our time, were supposed to have no education at all. It was with the full support of both patrons that Vittorino was to devise and execute a program of education that made his school one of the most creative in the Italy of the Renaissance.
In Chapter XVI, Volume I, of The Cambridge Modern History, Sir R. C. Jebb describes the new type of civic education created by Vittorino at his school in Mantua under the patronage of Gian and Paola Gonzaga in 1425 and carried on until his death in 1446: “His aim was to develop the whole nature of his pupils, intellectual, moral, and physical; not with a view to any special calling, but so as to form good citizens and useful members of society, capable of bearing their part with credit in public and private life. For intellectual training he took the Latin classics as a basis; teaching them, however, not in the dry and meagre fashion generally prevalent in the mediaeval schools ... but in the large and generous spirit of Renaissance humanism. Poetry, oratory, Roman history, and the ethics of Roman Stoicism, were studied in the best Latin writers.... By degrees Vittorino introduced some Greek classics also... . He provided for some teaching of mathematics, including geometry ... arithmetic, and the elements of astronomy. Nor did he neglect the rudiments of such knowledge as then passed for natural philosophy and natural history. Music and singing also found a place... . With great insight and tact, Vittorino saw how far social education could be given in a school with advantage to morals and without loss to manliness; he inculcated a good tone of manners, and encouraged the acquirement of such social accomplishments as the age demanded in well-educated men.”
It was not only as scholars, tutors, lecturers, members of coteries, participants in the work of academies, and patrons of schools that Italian women led and cooperated in the dissemination of the humanist learning. They carried on extensive correspondence with men and other women engaged in spreading humanist knowledge and doctrines in Italy and throughout Western Europe. Of Olympia Morata, we are told that she “corresponded on equal terms with the most learned men of the day.”
All these free, wide-reaching, and influential activities of Italian women in the promotion of humanist learning were in keeping with the very spirit of the Renaissance. In the third chapter of Die Kultur der Renaissance, Jacob Burckhardt, a renowned authority, says: “In order to understand the higher forms of social intercourse during the Renaissance, it is necessary to know that woman was regarded as in a position of perfect equality with man. One should not allow one’s self to be deceived by the cunning and in part malicious researches respecting the presumptive inferiority of the beautiful sex... . Above all, the education of the woman among the higher classes is essentially the same as that of the man. There was not the slightest hesitation among the Italians of the Renaissance in according the same literary and even philological instruction to sons and daughters; for as they saw in this new classical culture the highest possession of life, so they assumed gladly that girls were welcome to it... . There was no question of a conscious ‘emancipation’ of woman or anything so out of the ordinary, for the situation was understood to be a matter of course. The education of the woman of rank, just as well as that of the man, sought the development of a well-rounded personality in every respect. The same development of mind and heart that perfected the man was necessary for perfecting woman.”
Men of the Renaissance not only accepted as a matter of course this free and easy association with women in the advancement of learning and the civic spirit. Many writers of the period made a point of paying special tributes to women, if frequently in exaggerated form. Take, for example, Boccaccio (1313-1375), the fervent humanist, poet, story-teller, and friend of Petrarch. Besides writing De Casibus Virorum Illustrium, dealing with the troubles and vanities of illustrious men from the time of Adam to the fourteenth century, he wrote on illustrious women, De Claris Mulieribus, starting with Eve and coming down to Giovanna, queen of Naples; included were Cleopatra, Lucretia, Portia, Semiramis, and Sappho. This work passed through many editions and is esteemed as among the important texts of the Renaissance. It was translated into Italian by Joseph Betussi who “in the ardor of his zeal enriched it by fifty new articles.”
About a hundred years later, Henry C. Agrippa (1486-1525), German writer, soldier, physician, architect, historiographer, doctor of law, and traveler in many lands, outdid Boccaccio. In 1509 Agrippa published a work on the nobility and superexcellence of women (De nobilitate et praecellentia feminei sexus), dedicated to Margaret of Burgundy. In this volume of thirty chapters, Agrippa employed the writings of fable-makers, poets, historians, and the canon law in efforts to prove the case, and resorted to theological, physical, historical, moral, and even magical evidences to support his argument. He declared that he was moved to write the book by his sense of duty and obligations to duty.
Many men wrote paeans to women, as Lucian the Roman had done and as men were to continue to do in the mood of the Renaissance, in many countries, for centuries. Finally, in 1774, just two years before the Declaration of Independence at Philadelphia, an account of such hymning of women was published at Philadelphia. This was a work in two volumes: Essay on the Character, Manners, and Genius of Women in Different Ages – enlarged from a French work of M. Thomas by Mr. Russell, an Englishman. It included a section on the “Revival of Letters and the Learning of Women, Of the Books written in Honour of Women, and on the Superiority of the Sexes, and the subject continued.”
After giving an account of the work by Boccaccio and Betussi, the author of the Essay continued: “Philip de Bergamo, an Augustine monk, published a volume in Latin Of Illustrious Women. Another performance on the same subject was published by Julius Caesar Capacio, secretary to the city of Naples; one by Charles Pinto, in Latin, and in verse; one by Ludovico Domenichi; one by James Philip Tomassini, bishop of Venice; and one by Bernard Scarclioni, a canon of Padua, Of The Illustrious Women of Padua.
“Francis Augustine della Chiesa, bishop of Saluca, wrote a treatise on The Women Famous in Literature; Lewis Jacob de St. Charles, a Carmelite, wrote another on The Women Illustrious By their Writings; and Alexander Van Denbusche, of the Low Countries, wrote one on The Learned Women.
“The celebrated Father le Moine published a volume under the title of Galeria de Femmes Fortes; and Brantome wrote The Lives of Illustrious Women. But it is to be observed that Brantome, a French knight and a courtier, speaks only of queens and princesses... .
“After Brantome, Hilario da Costal a Minim, published two volumes in quarto, each volume consisting of eight hundred pages, containing, as he tells us, the panegyrics Of ALL the women of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, distinguished by their valour, their talents, or their virtues. But the pious ecclesiastic has, in fact, only given us the panegyrics of the CATHOLIC women of that period. He does not say a word, for example, of queen Elizabeth... . “But all must yield to the indefatigable Italian, Peter Paul de Ribera, who published in his own language, a work entitled ‘The Immortal Triumphs and heroic Enterprises of Eight hundred and forty-five women.”
“Besides these large compilations dedicated to the honour of the whole sex, many of the writers of those times, men of taste and gallantry, addressed panegyrics to individuals, to women who were the living ornaments of their age. This practice was most common in Italy, where every thing conspired to favour it... . The courts of Naples, of Milan, of Mantua, of Parma, of Florence, and several others, formed so many schools of taste, between which reigned an emulation of glory and of talents. The men distinguished themselves by their address in war, or in love; the women, by their knowledge and accomplishments’.
From Italy zeal for classical learning fanned out like rays from a sun. Queen Isabella of Spain became interested in it through her acquaintance with Vittoria Colonna and brought Italian men and women to Spain to instruct her courtiers and students in the universities. She studied the classics herself. She established a school of the classics in her palace. She attended examinations of students and watched with eagle eyes and sharp cars the progress of this education among her retinue. She collected texts for the courtiers to read and for students to use in the universities. One woman was commissioned to lecture on the classics at Salamanca; another on rhetoric at Alcali. Later Philip II enriched this Spanish Renaissance by his patronage of Italian artists. He encouraged Spanish women to paint portraits as well as write letters, by inviting the Italian woman portrait painter, Sophonisba Anguisciola, to his court. Of this portrait painter Van Dyck long afterward was to say that he learned more from her, even in her blind old age, than he had learned from many seeing men.
In France enthusiasm for classical learning was stimulated by Christine de Pisan – Italian in background – who grew up at the court of Charles V, in the late fourteenth century, where her father was installed as an astrologer. After the visit of Petrarch. to France in quest of Greek and Latin texts possibly among the monastic treasures, monarchs began to accumulate a library for the French court. But Christine de Pisan did more than read texts there. She studied Plato and also Arab scientific learning in some books in the library. She shared Dante’s interest in the State and urged the French to come to grips with their problem of national survival so seriously menaced by the invading armies of the English King. By coming to grips she meant more than war; she meant coming to realize the necessity of granting privileges to the middle class without which, she contended, France could not get up on its feet. Before Christine died, Jeanne d’Arc took the field as commander of French troops – her actual leadership financed by the great capitalist, Jacques Coeur, her will to lead inspired by her “voices,” her acceptance as leader facilitated by French adoration of the Virgin.
Christine de Pisan tried to offset the influence of jean de Meting’s stereotype of the perfect lady in his Roman de la Rose by her Le Livre des trois Vertus (The Book of the Three Virtues) addressed especially to women. She hoped to arouse and develop political consciousness among French women. To this end she defended the spirit of the freer-thinking Italian women of her day in her Cite’ des Dames and awakened such interest that she was invited to the English court. She did not accept the invitation on the ground that her supreme duty lay in France, but this book was translated into English as The City of Women.
Thinking and Writing in the Popular Tongues
While the revival of classical learning was proceeding rapidly, the growing use of the vernacular languages in literary work gave another secular and even more realistic turn to intellectual interests. Women were very active in the creation of vernacular literature, especially in Germany and Italy – a literature of tales, romances, lyrics, songs, and commentaries on practical subjects. To devotional, theological, and classical books were now added works for men and women alike on contemporary life. More and more authors drifted away from religious theories and speculations to interest in human beings, in human life, and expressed new ideas in imaginative, descriptive, serious, and fantastic forms. After the invention of printing, the trickle of books in circulation became a broad stream and ever-larger masses of the people were drawn into the magic circle of the learned world and the world of creative thought.
To give the details necessary to support these generalizations respecting the spread of reading and learning among the men and women of the later middle ages would take a large number of volumes at a conservative estimate, for the historical documents run into thousands of pages. So again a single illustration must suffice here.
During the first half of the fifteenth century, a brilliant German scholar and monk, Johann Busch, wrote a chronicle of a monastery and a work on the reformation of monasteries. From the latter treatise, G. G. Coulton prints several excerpts in translation in his Life in the Middle Ages. According to this record, Busch heard that a certain Dominican reader or lecturer had preached in the town of Zutphen that “layfolk should have no books in the German tongue” and that no sermons should be preached save in churches and churchyards. Busch was startled by news of this lecturer’s discourse, for, he said, he knew that there were more than a hundred congregations of Sisters and Beguines in the Utrecht diocese; that they possessed several books in the mother tongue and read them daily by themselves or publicly in the refectory; and that “they read and heard German books of this sort in Zutphen, Deventer, Zwolle, Kampen, and everywhere in the cities and country districts [of the Netherlands].”
Resolved to correct the lecturer’s error, Busch visited him and said: “Herein he hath preached ill, and he must publicly revoke it: for the princes of the land, the common people, men and women throughout the whole world, have many books written in the vulgar German tongue.” Busch agreed with the lecturer that laymen and laywomen should not be reading “lofty and divine books” dealing with high questions of theological doctrines, but insisted that they had the right to read, and should read, books treating of vices and virtues and of a proper religious life. Having listened to Busch’s arguments, the lecturer at length publicly revoked his command to the people and declared: “Ye may well and lawfully possess good and moral books in the German tongue, and read therein.”
Reading was done in the middle ages – reading by men and women in many lands – and it undoubtedly increased as the centuries passed. Who were reading? Certainly not priests and men and women of religious orders alone. There is substantial ground for the statement that the teaching of youth in the castles of the rich, such as it may have been, was largely in the hands of the ladies of the castles. But reading was not confined to the upper classes, if mainly. The great English lawyer of the twelfth century, Ranulf Glanvill, declared: “The high-born of our country disdain letters, or delay to apply their children to them.”
In what proportion were the men and women literate? G. G. Coulton, the life-long student of mediaeval history, gives a cautious answer: “Though very few women arrived at anything like the university stage in education, it seems probable that more of them could read and write than the men,” especially in the upper classes “at the period when romances of adventure were offered in profusion.”
Christianizing the Higher Intellectual Interests
In the middle ages, as in other times, education, whether in schools or under the direction of private tutors, was marked by routine and discipline; and much writing, whether in Latin or the vernacular tongues, remained largely on the level of the practical, the descriptive, and the transcriptive. Paralleling these intellectual activities, however, were other concerns calling for the display of creative qualities – intellectual interests of a higher, or at least different, order. And it is a matter of positive record that among the persons of mediaeval society who wrestled with the moral, social, and intellectual problems of the period were numerous women, diligent, spirited, and influential. The highest of those problems, then as before and after, was “the riddle of our universe”: how to discover unity, meaning, and instruction amid the diversities of physical nature and human life; how to find the very essence of human nature amid the multiplicity of its manifestations; how to comprehend and explain the conduct, experiences, and duties of men and women in relation to earth and society. Though the problem was not solved in the middle ages – nor has it been in any age – it was worked at with striking intensity of purpose in the time called mediaeval.
Among those who worked at it, two schools of thinkers or interpreters gradually took form and strove for supremacy. One school contended that intelligence, in sheer logical exercise, using pure reason, could explain the riddle or at least come nearest to an explanation. Writers of this school were, in most cases, men of the clerical world, professional thinkers, who composed monumental treatises on systematic theology and filled large libraries with their works. They had access to books which contained the philosophies of their forebears and they had leisure for speculations reaching high into abstract realms. Confined as a rule to cloister, study, library, or schoolroom, they had relatively little contact with the life of the mass of people – with the work, experiences, interests, and activities of the multitudes. They were speculative theologians, strictly speaking.
Members of the second school, on the other hand, thought that pure reason was not enough and in some cases that it was a false guide, at least to life. On their part they maintained that knowledge useful to life came from plain human experience and from insight into that experience – from intuitive comprehension of life’s meaning. Persons of this mental outlook wrote less than the theologians proper, if they wrote at all. More often they were preachers to the multitudes and administered to their physical, moral, and spiritual needs. Such persons were commonly called “mystics” and their philosophy, if it deserves that name, was called “mysticism.” Among the theologians and master logicians, Thomas Aquinas was an outstanding example in the thirteenth century; and among the mystics, Francis of Assisi was no less distinguished.
It must be borne in mind, however, that no absolute line separated the one school from the other. Aquinas, the great master of logic, of abstract reasoning, did not believe that he had attained Finality and Omniscience. He was a Dominican priest and, in the presence of the ultimate question of life in the universe, conceded that mysticism in its less extreme form revealed powers of discernment or understanding that went beyond sheer logic, or pure analysis and reasoning. On the other hand the mystics did not all eschew reason, or logic; they really had to use it to some extent in trying to bring their thought of life into verbal expressions.
The gulf that was made between the two kinds of thinking was a matter of emphasis. But a bridge across it was difficult to build, and in time terrible conflicts in theory and practice developed which finally split Christendom asunder. Nevertheless neither type of thinking eliminated the other type completely. The attitudes, methods, and instrumentalities of both schools – the one called rational or logical and the other irrational or mystical – survive as mental heritages into our own time and still struggle, if less violently today, for the right of superiority.
The differences between the two schools of mediaeval thinkers were more than intellectual and moral. The pure logicians tended to institutionalize religion and add power to the hierarchy. The mystics tended to socialize religion and life, to liberate it from the rule of the hierarchy, to carry ethical, as well as religious, teachings to the masses of the people, to ally themselves with and direct social unrest, to reach the ultimate individual in society and stir his or her latent force to moral and intellectual expression.
This is not to say that great mystics were not also orthodox Catholics: Bernard of Clairvaux and Catherine of Siena were both orthodox in matters of creed and both “constructive” mystics. Mysticism was manifest “not only in the personal experience of spiritual genius, but also in corporate and democratic movements. It profoundly influenced religion and art, and instigated both religious rebellion and religious reform,” says Evelyn Underhill in a review of “Mediaeval Mysticism” in Volume VII of The Cambridge Mediaeval History. The major mystics were often highly educated and yet at the same time in close and intimate contact with life as lived by the lowliest people in the humblest communities, no less than with life as lived by the upper classes from whose riches the Church received enormous gifts of land and money. With mysticism was intimately associated the freeing of individuals from bondage to creed and classes, and the socializing of individuals for the necessities of the good life in society. In this form of reflective thinking rather than in the towering logic of theological speculation lay the democratic dynamics of the coming ages, which carried civilization forward.
If in the original records of the mystics and of contemporary critics of mysticism we seek to discover and order the features of that dynamism of thought and action, the following elements, or aspects, come repeatedly and emphatically to our attention. First are what may be called inner matters of the spirit. Mystics relied primarily upon the force of intuitive experience in the search for enlightenment; they laid stress on the inner spirit rather than outward authority or power. While they often conformed to the requirements of authority, they preached spiritual liberty and unhindered communion with God, sometimes conceived as embodied in the human soul – “the spark of God,” the “inner fight,” the “conscience of the individual.” By some extremists among them – the great Ecstatics Deism was attenuated into a kind of Pantheism, thus challenging the God of the theologians and professional philosophers of the religious schools.
Second, the mystics’ conceptions of life and God assumed particular outward manifestations. Activists among them, as distinguished from those who withdrew to contemplation, believed that their truths sprang from life, were designed for and applicable to life. They urged reforms of abuses in Church and State. They inveighed against luxury, wealth, and oppression of the people. To them, community or group or association was necessary to put the good way of life into effect. They emphasized care for the common people and preached to them in the style calculated to reach their minds and awaken their moral aspirations and powers.
Far more than the regular clergy, active mystics taught, wrote, and thought in the vernacular languages instead of Latin – thus coming closer to the people. In serving the poor many of them studied, wrote on, and made use of practical medicine. In the promulgation of their doctrines, mystics entered into social intercourse with one another and the public, thereby helping to break down barriers between the Church as an institution and its formal learning, on the one side, and the laity on the other. By traveling extensively even in times when travel was hard, they spread their doctrines of Christian living from one end of Western Christendom to the other, furnishing, if often inadvertently, fuel for popular movements such as peasants’ protests and uprisings against feudal oppression.
A large number of the mystics, men and women alike, sprang from the humbler orders of people or identified themselves with the common life. Into the thinking and debating of the times they thrust leveling ideas derived from primitive Christianity, which were to become revolutionary in the later centuries. For example, take William Langland. Whether he was the sole author of Piers the Plowman is uncertain, but there is no doubt about the strain of mysticism in that book or the social drive of its thought, amid the confusions and digressions of the text. Langland above all emphasized the sufferings, poverty, and oppression of the masses. He assailed riches,
luxury, and rapacity, whether in Church or State – corruption and avarice among clerics and laymen.
It was the levelling priest, John Ball, who in the middle of the fourteenth century brought out first principles:
When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?
He declared: “Good people, things will never go well in England so long as goods be not in common, and so long as there be villeins and gentlemen.” If the origins of revolutionary doctrines of natural rights and equality in the Western world be sought, prime documents will be found in the records of mystics. While Thomas Aquinas taught the duties which members of classes owed to one another, revolutionary mystics taught what amounted to the abolition of classes.
In the movement of thought and action which marked the rise and growth of mysticism, so many-sided and complex in its ideas and expressions, women were prominent as thinkers, leaders, and disciples. Leaders among the men of the movement, no less than leaders among the women, strove to enliven spiritual interests in women. In turn, women leaders addressed their teachings to men no less than to women. And in the records of the middle ages are thousands upon thousands of pages which reveal the thought, power, and activities of women in this movement, from aristocratic women at the top to the plain women of the laboring classes at the bottom – many of them now enrolled among the saints of the Church.
Of the women leaders whose names appear only in the pages of most detailed histories, if even there in all cases, the following list is a selection:
Christina of Markyate
Hildegarde of Bingen
Angela of Toligno, called the Mistress of Theologians
> Mechthild of Magdeburg
Elizabeth of Schonau
Marguerite Porette, burned at Paris in 1310
Juliana of Norwich
Catherine of Siena
Catherine of Genoa
Bridget of Sweden
Catherine of Bologna
Colette of Corbie
Concerning the ideas, interests, journeys, and labors of these women in their manifold relations to men and society, little if anything is said in the general histories of the times – even in many of the larger works. But if we seek to find out all we can about a single one of these women, St. Catherine of Siena, for instance, we encounter not only the books written about her but eleven printed volumes of her own writings: Opera in five volumes and Letere in six volumes. Commenting on her Book of Divine Doctrine, a competent critic maintains: “It stands with the Divina Commedia as one of the two supreme attempts to express the eternal in the symbolism of the day ... ... Among her letters are letters to kings, popes, cardinals, bishops, religious orders, political bodies, and numerous individuals of various ranks. Of them a careful critic has said: “By their historical importance, their spiritual fragrance, their literary value, and their beautiful Tuscan vernacular, the letters put the author almost on a level with Petrarch.” If an evaluation of their historical significance and range be made the single test, they rank above the writings of Petrarch. The part Catherine played in Church politics , especially her role in restoring the unity ‘of the Papacy, is more commonly known than her part in the intellectual, moral, and religious thought of the period; but that stress on her negotiations in papal politics is an emphasis on a single facet of her mind and purposes.
Another Italian woman, St. Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510), represented a different type of mystical thought and action. Catherine of Genoa came from the upper class and is correctly called “a lady of the Renaissance.” She belonged to no religious order; she abstained from an active participation in the politics of State and Church. No miracles are ascribed to her. But she lifted “Christian Platonism to fresh levels of fertility.” She taught her doctrines to a limited group of disciples, and according to Evelyn Underhill she established and ruled “with admirable common sense the first modern hospital.”
Women in Dissenting Movements
There is still another phase of intellectual, moral, and religious history during the middle ages in which the ideas, interests, and activities of women bulk large in fact, if neglected in the written histories of the period in general circulation. This phase pertains to the important long series of heretical movements with which the Roman Catholic Church did battle, particularly from the twelfth century to the great crash of the sixteenth century when heresy flooded out in innumerable sects, denominations, religious uprisings, and popular movements – by which the founding and growth of the United States were so profoundly influenced. The history of heresy is, no doubt, highly controversial and is likely to be so as long as here are Catholics, Protestants, and free thinkers in the world. But whatever partisan and sectarian judgments may be rendered on heresy itself, women shared in and affected all the revolts of opinion, belief, and practice; and any written history which overlooks this fact is partial, fragmentary, untrue history.
It is inexcusable because a huge documentation exists relative to the ideas and doings of “heretical” women. Women taught, spread unorthodox opinions in numerous ways, and practiced their teachings. They were subjected to inquisitions, as were heretical men. Like en they were tortured and burned, displaying calmness and integrity amid the agonies of the rack and the stake. With men they perished by the thousands in the mass slaughters of religious wars.
Theologians and historians have disputed and still dispute whether the fate accorded to heretics was deserved or undeserved. Nevertheless, heresy was insistent among the intellectual, moral, and religious drives out of which emerged the modern world of thought, action, and institutions. Nor is there any doubt among students acquainted with the documents of history that women were prominent and invincible in the revolts which finally broke the sway of Roman Catholic authority over the Western mind and spirit.
Here again only illustrations are possible. Take, for example, the extract on a heretical woman from the chronicle of Ralph, Abbot of Coggeshall, given in Coulton’s Life in the Middle Ages. The document narrates events in the days of Louis VII (1137-1180) when many heresies spread among the cities and provinces of France. A young cleric serving under the Archbishop of Reims, when walking in a vineyard one day, met a comely young maiden whom he tried to seduce – “prayed her love par amours.” The maiden repulsed him and gave her views on the subject, indicating that she belonged to a heretical sect which regarded the sexual act as a mortal sin worthy of eternal damnation. The cleric then attempted to argue her out of her unorthodox theories and discovered that she had a mistress in the neighborhood who could argue with him. This mistress was seized and brought before the archbishop. Then a great verbal contest ensued.
In the course of the controversy the two women were condemned to the stake. The mistress shouted: “0 man, men and unjust judges! Think ye to burn me with your fires?” In a trice she escaped them, fell through a window, and was borne away by evil spirits. But the maiden remained and stood fast by her doctrines. “No persuasion of reason, no promise of riches, could recall her from her foolish obstinacy,” the chronicler recorded; “wherefore she was burned to death, to the admiration of many who marked how she uttered no sighs, no tears, no laments, but bore with constancy and cheerfulness all the torments of the consuming flames, even as martyrs of Christ (yet for how different a cause!) who were slain in old times by the heathen in defence of the Christian religion.”
In the fourteenth century, to be very precise, in 1399, a number of Italian women at Florence, “certain daughters of Judas,” as they were described in the record, “being instigated of the Devil,” inveigled a Franciscan, Brother Michael, into expounding heretical doctrines which resulted in his death at the stake. When Friar Michael had come near to the place of execution, a faithful woman cried aloud, “Stand fast, martyr of Christ, for thou shalt soon receive thy crown!” “I know not what he answered,” the recorder noted, “but there arose much talk of this thing.”
Far away, in England, about a quarter of a century later, Margery Backster, wife of a carpenter, was charged with heresy before the bishop of Norwich. The accusation lodged against her specified that she had spoken violently against “pope, cardinals, archbishops, and bishops” as persecutors of the people, and had repudiated many of the crucial doctrines and practices of the Church. She had scorned pilgrimages, graven images, holy water, feasts, and fasts. It was reported that she and her husband had been getting dangerous thoughts out of dangerous books, that “her husband read the law of Christ unto them, which law was written in a book that her husband was wont to read to her at night, and that her husband is well learned in Christian verity.”
Whether Margery Backster was sent to the stake or escaped condemnation the documents do not tell us, but they do illuminate for a brief moment the religious life of little men and women in a little English community in the year 1428. Innumerable other records of inquisitions reveal similar scenes in widely scattered places of the Western world, from decade to decade, from century to century – until at length the Protestant revolt severed the unity of the Catholic Church, split into fragments itself, and facilitated, if unwittingly, the triumph of human interests over theology and authoritarianism.
In this iconoclastic and liberation movement, titled ladies and untitled wives of flaming Protestant preachers played invincible roles, the story of which is told in part in James 1. Good’s Women of the Reformed Church. Their sanction, their spoken and written words, and their activities were among the imperatives of this movement.