Portrait of a Woman by Robert Campin circa 1420


Introduction

While education flourished in the Middle Ages for men, it was not generally encouraged for women. Those from the nobility or wealthier classes were sometimes educated either privately, or in the home schools that were established for male members of the family. In the 9th century C.E. Charlemagne established a palace school that was directed by the English scholar Alcuin. Several famous teachers including Clement the Scot and Peter of Pisa were also brought to the court of Charlemagne. We know that Charelemagne's daughters Lucia and Columba were among the girls who were permitted to attend the palace school.

During the 1300's children of both sexes attended school in Florence. Women from the nobility or upper classes often had obligations that required literacy. With the rise of the Medieval university household were able to employ poor university students as tutors and on such occasions girls were sometimes permitted to to join the tutoring sessions of their brothers.

The subject of education for women, however, was a hotly debated issue throughout the Middle Ages. As education was directly connected with the church it was inevitable that the church's views of women should have led predominated. St. Thomas of Aquinas,1225-1274, who was perhaps one of the great teachers of the period declared what was clearly a widely supported notion reagrding women:

"The woman is subject to man on account of the weakness of her nature . . . Man is the beginning of woman and her end, just as God is the beginning and end of every creature. Children ought to love their Father more than they love their mother."

Medieval society, and particularly the powerful domains of church and state, clearly had no place for well-educated women.

What "education" women did receive was likely to be one with a views of their future roles as wives and mothers. In his treatise De educatione liberorum written in 1440 Matteo Veggio advocated that girls "be raised on sacred teachings." He enjoined them to lead "regular, chaste, and religious lives and to devote all [their] time to female labors." If girls were allowed to learn to read and write it wass not for the prupose of making them literate. Vincent of Beauvais, writing in 1256, advises noble parents to allow their daughters to learn to read and write so that in "keeping busy they will escape the harmful thoughts, the pleasures and vanities of the flesh." For Vincent and other clerics with advice on the education of young girls, the inculcation of good morals was of the first importance. To preserve chastity, Vincent warned parents to make sure their daughters "avoid superfluity of food, drink, sleep, baths and ornaments as these are nothing else but the seed-bed of impurity."

For girls wishing to become nuns, learning to read and write was part of the training. Some even studied Latin. For the most part, marriage, motherhood and child rearing were the principle goals for most girls. As transmiters of morality and religious dogma, they were to be "raised on sacred teachings to lead a regular, chaste, and religious life." Furthermore, according to clerics such as Francesco Barbaro and Maffeo Vegio, they were to devote their time primarily to "female labors" and prayers. Despite the restrictive social codes a number of women did assert their talents in as writers, poets, composers and artists. One of the most remarkable women of the time was the poet Christine de Pizan. Not only was she able to earn her lving as a writer, but her arguments with the leading clerics of her day on the rights of women represent one of the first declarations of feminism to be articulated.

Christine de Pizan and the Education of Women
Christine de Pizan's City of Women
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