Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the author of 24 historical fiction and non-fiction works and the winner of more than 53 literary accolades. More than 34,000 copies of her books have been sold. For a complete list of her books and awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Women in the Middle Ages 3: Women and Education

Today I continue my mini-series on opportunities for women in the Middle Ages with a look at women's access to education.

After wealth, education is arguably the most powerful means of empowerment. As I noted in last week’s essay on women and economic power, professional skills were mobile and endowed women with independence and self-respect.  Today, however, I want to look at abstract learning, “book-learning,” rather than practical, professional skills. It is still common to impute ignorance to people in the Middle Ages generally, and even more common to assume that women were not generally literate.

Certainly, literacy was not as widespread or common in the Middle Ages as it is today. There was no requirement to attend school, and for the poor, the need to work from a very early age made schooling a luxury. It was possible to learn a trade by watching and listening to a master, rather than reading texts. Thus for a significant portion of society at the lower end of the social scale, reading and writing was neither a necessity nor particularly valuable. 

Yet, as with everything in feudal society, class more than gender determined whether a person was likely to be literate or not. Among the classes that valued and required higher levels of education, women were as likely to be educated as their brothers and husbands.  In the early Middle Ages among the upper classes, some historians argue, women were more likely to read and write than their husbands and brothers. Because their men were too busy fighting, women were expected to provide a basic education to children and maintain control of the estates by doing the book-keeping and correspondence.

For merchants or skilled craftsmen running a business, the support of wives in keeping the books, conducting correspondence, collecting arrears, etc. was vital.  Recognizing this, burghers ensured that their daughters were sufficiently literate and numerate to carry out these tasks ― or they risked having unmarriageable daughters.

Noblewomen, likewise, needed to be literate and numerate in order to manage their own and their husband’s property. In fact, even in the later Middle Ages the everyday management of a household and estate generally fell to the lady of the house, since men were often engaged in warfare and politics, activities that took them away from their estates, sometimes for extended periods. The higher their status, the higher the level of educated expected. Noblewomen could usually correspond in both their own language and Latin. They were frequent patrons of the arts, owners of books, and in some cases authors as well. It is no coincidence that Eleanor of Aquitaine’s tomb shows her reading a book, while her daughter Marie of Champagne was the patroness of Chrétien de Troyes and it was to her that he dedicated some of his greatest works such as Yvain, or The Knight with the Lion.

Finally, women who chose a religious vocation chose a lifestyle that revolved around reading, writing, copying and illustrating Holy Scripture and more. The most highly educated women of the Middle Ages were, therefore, often found inside convents. Furthermore, by their work copying and illuminating manuscripts, nuns played a key role (along with monks) in preserving knowledge both sacred and secular, and in their role as educators, they were instrumental in spreading literacy to others.

The latter point is particularly important because it was only the wealthy that could afford to retain tutors for the education of their young. (Household accounts, incidentally, sometimes list women as tutors.) Thus education often fell to parents, who might not have the necessary time, inclination or talent for the task. Yet, it is evident that starting at least by the 6th century AD convents and monasteries across Europe offered education to children. Interestingly, the sexes were not always segregated when very young; little boys were often entrusted to the care of nuns and only later sent to monasteries or given secular education as pages and squires.  Alternatively, particularly bright girls might be sent to monasteries to learn more or be trained in particular skills such as singing or illumination. Also notable is anecdotal evidence of education in the convents being affordable as there are references to poor children attending them.  

The most dramatic evidence of female education in the Middle Ages, however, is provided by the large number of women who were authors of important works. A certain noblewoman, Dhuoda, for example, wrote an extensive and erudite treatise on education in or about 842; the book is full of biblical and other references that indicate this “ordinary” noblewoman was herself very well read (and incidentally very busy). In 965, a certain Hroswitha composed a long epic poem of Otto I. In the 12th century, there was Heloise, famous, unfortunately, more for her affair with Abelard than the fact that she was accounted a brilliant scholar in Latin, Greek and Hebrew before she even met him.  Indeed, Abelard claims to have wanted to seduce Heloise because of her learning ― as well as writing that he never really loved her, only lusted after her. In her letters to him, Heloise espoused a radical feminism that rejected both marriage and children. In the 15th century, there was the poet Christine de Pisan who in the early 15th century took on the University of Paris, mocking their misogyny.

Christine de Pisan with her Son

My personal favorite among the women of letters of the Middle Ages was Hildegard von Bingen. She was born in 1098 and died in 1179. She joined a convent at eight, took the veil at 15 and was abbess from 1136 onwards. She had visions, as she describes them:

Through God’s goodness, my soul sometimes surges up to the heights of the heavens and the air and sometimes wanders among different peoples, although they live in far regions and unknown places…I see them only in my soul, and the eyes of my body remain open, for I have never fainted in ecstasy. I see them awake night and day…The light that I see is not local, but infinitely more brilliant than the light that surrounds the sun.” (Cited in Pernoud, p. 43)

Yet for all her mystical visions, she remained a highly practical woman who wrote books on “simple” and “composite” medicine, books on linguistics, and also composed music (which can be found on the internet today.)  Furthermore, returning to my thesis on women wielding political power (See Women and Political Power), she corresponded with all the important rulers of her day from Pope Eugene III to Friedrich Barbarossa and St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Hildegard, in short, was recognized as an intellectual and spiritual giant event by individuals themselves revered for their learning, power, and spirituality.

The heroines of these award-winning novels set in the Middle Ages reflect their respective class in terms of their level of education -- from Dowager Queens to serving girls.

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                          Buy now!


  1. Very interesting, thanks! I`m writing historical fiction and I`m glad I came across your post.