Women’s Education in Early Modern Europe. A History, 1500-1800

Volume 40 (1999)

Reviewed Work(s)

Women’s Education in Early Modern Europe. A History, 1500-1800,
edited by Barbara J. Whitehead. NY: Garland Press, 1999.


An explosion of studies in social history in the 1960s and 1970s spurred a renewed interest in the history of education as well. Works by Paul Grendler on Italy, Joann Hoeppner Moran and Nicholas Orme on England, and George Huppert on France explore the nature of pre-university education in early modern Europe. They have clearly delineated the impact of humanism on early modern education. In the 1970s, in the wake of Joan Kelly-Gadol’s seminal essay “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” scholars such as Margaret King, Lisa Jardine, and Phyllis Stock sought to acknowledge and understand educated women in the European past. These learned ladies were exceptional women, shut out of the learning establishment — thus corroborating Kelly-Gadol’s thesis that the Renaissance brought few opportunities for women. The collection of essays in Women’s Education in Early Modern Europe. A History 1500-1800 (NY: Garland Press, 1999), edited by Barbara Whitehead, is not merely another look at the exceptionally educated women of early modern Europe; rather, these essays seek to challenge the very notion or definition of education. “Each essay in this book,” claims Whitehead, “contributes to the redefinition of the subject of the history of education: education is to accomplish a social task, to define the worth, value, and responsibility of the individual in society” (xv). Collectively, these essays clearly demonstate that looking at education from a narrow humanistic definition is to miss much of the picture; education is a part of a process of socialization. While important in themselves, earlier studies of exceptional women who excelled in learning the humanist curriculum fail to explore such questions as: How were women prepared to fill their lives in society? Where did they learn proper manners and behavior? If frequently excluded from formal schools, by what methods were women taught these manners? This book is successful in addressing such questions and stressing the various opportunities for education that early modern women had available to them.

The contributors to this volume hail from both literary and historical backgrounds. While individual essays, such as “The Pattern of Perfect Womanhood: Feminine Virtue, Pattern Books, and the Fiction of the Clothworking Woman,” by Stacey Shimizu, or “Its Frequent Visitor”: Death at Boarding School in Early Modern Europe,” by Carolyn C. Lougee, may seem far removed from one another in content, they do contribute to the overall purpose of the book: stressing the importance of education as a means of imparting social norms and expectations to young girls. The essays deal with such varied topics as convent schools, pattern books and embroidery, the education of midwives, and death in boarding schools. The essays discuss women’s education in France, England, and Italy, with less frequent references to Spain and Germany. There is no clear organization of these essays, other than a vague chronological order, commencing with studies of the fifteenth century and ending with those of the eighteenth century.

Some articles are stronger than others. Sharon Strocchia’s essay on convent education in Quattrocento Florence, “Learning the Virtues: Convent Schools and Female Education in Renaissance Florence,” is successful in its depiction of the convent school (here looking at the previously unstudied convent of Santa Maria del Fiore, called Lapo) as the locus of socialization of young girls, indeed serving as a rite of passage from childhood to womanhood. Strocchia argues effectively that in Renaissance Florence, when ambivalent attitudes towards female education and literacy persisted, convents stressed above all else learning the virtues, that is manners, comportment and moral training, and cloaked any acquisition of reading or writing skills in the more important process of learning virtue. Although dealing less explicitly with schooling, Shimizu’s essay on pattern books and clothmaking has similarly cogent conclusions. Pattern books not only educated women in domestic crafts, “but also crafted them into the cultural image of ideal women” (77). The process of embroidery and needlework itself inculcated in women the feminine ideals of domesticity, obedience, silence, and chastity.

At first glance, Lougee’s fascinating study of the frequency of death in early modern boarding schools seems to have little to do with an overall redefinition of education. Indeed, her studies of the boarding schools of the Smol’nyi Institute founded by Catherine the Great and the Maison royale de Saint-Cyr established by Mme. de Maintenon demonstrate that even at elite boarding schools in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the students had a higher mortality rate than outside of the schools. However Lougee argues that part of the educational experience was learning to react to death and illness: “if death was a part of school life in early modern Europe, then understanding children’s experience of schooling entails knowing the ways in which groups of children and adolescents faced, suffered, and gave expression to their own death or the death of others” (214).

One essay in the collection did strike this reader as anomalous. Catherine Eskin’s essay, “The Rei(g)ning of Women’s Tongues in English Books of Instruction and Rhetorics,” does not attempt to redefine education. Instead, she accepts the traditional understanding of education as the Latin curriculum offered by the humanists and emphasizes the mixed attitudes of (male) writers on the advisability of teaching women rhetoric. While she is looking at Elizabethan England rather than Renaissance Italy, the conclusions she draws do not seem surprising and seem to repeat much of what King and Jardine have previously concluded for Italy. Her thesis does stress the varied attitudes of humanists, from Thomas Salter and others who decried female education vehemently, to Juan Luis Vives, who, while still forbidding women to practice eloquence and rhetoric, nonetheless prescribed a general female education. However, Eskin’s overall understanding of education itself seems to differ from that of the other contributors to this volume. In describing limitations on women’s education, she says, “by cutting off access to Latin, the educational system effectively cut off women from the only education that was valued in Renaissance society” (110). This sounds a far cry from Whitehead’s warning that “in assuming that in order to be considered educated a woman in early modern times necessarily had to have formal schooling, the historian risks being ahistorical” (xi) or Sharon Michalove’s insistence that the equation of humanism with “real” education is a false one (47).

Other essays include Michalove’s discussion of the aristocratic household in Tudor England as a locus of learning; a consideration of literacy among Italian Jewish women by Howard Adelman; Colleen Fitzgerald’s comparison of two treatises of female education in seventeenth-century France; and an interesting essay by Adrianna Bakos on the education of midwives and their gradual disenfranchisement by the eighteenth century. Despite some incongruities, most of the essays stand alone as interesting and important works of scholarship, and as a group they provide a deeper insight into women’s education in early modern Europe. By stressing education as a social process of learning comportment, manners, and moral values, one recognizes the plethora of educational experiences then available to women.

Danielle Culpepper

University of Virginia

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