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Is the Education of Women a Modern Idea?

Many people believe that the education of women is a modern idea, springing from the Enlightenment. They might be surprised to learn that St. Jerome, one of the Doctors of the Church, wrote: “Parents should educate their daughters as well as their sons.” He wrote this in A.D. 407, and he was quoting his Greek predecessor Origen. The education of girls and women goes back to antiquity, and it has significant Jewish and Greco-Latin roots.

At Regensburg in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI recalled the “hellenization” of Judaism and then Christianity during antiquity, when the learning of the Greeks was synthesized with revelation. This hellenization did advance the education of women. The great stimulus to it, however, was the Christian recognition of the spiritual equality of the sexes. After all, the equal capacity to understand and live the faith relies on equal intellectual capacities.

To understand the roots of women’s education in Christian tradition, we may look first to Scripture. The Old Testament provides a few glimpses into the education of Jewish youths. Some passages show mothers involved in their sons’ education in ways that demonstrate the women’s own intellectual development. For example, in Proverbs 31, King Solomon writes about his mother instructing him in virtue. She personally took part in her son’s education, and Solomon considered it important to record her counsel in her own words. Later, in the Books of Maccabees (written in the second century B.C.), the holy mother of the seven martyred brothers is likewise depicted as involved in her sons’ education. Before her last son is put to death, this woman, traditionally called Salomone, reminds the boy of his education, his training in theology by his tutor, his knowledge of the experiences of Daniel in the lions’ den and of the three Hebrews in the fiery furnace. Salomone’s detailed recollection of scriptural examples shows how learned she was in her own right.

Susanna’s Education in Virtue

The Bible records one specific instance of the education of a woman: Susanna. The Book of Daniel relates, “Her parents, being just, had instructed their daughter according to the law of Moses” (Dan. 13:3). This simple statement conveys a great deal. Both her father and mother were just, and her mother as well as her father had a role in seeing that Susanna was educated. As for the content of Susanna’s education, although the phrase “the Law of Moses” can refer specifically to the Torah, it can also have a broader meaning, indicating the whole of Jewish scripture. Evidently this broader meaning pertains to Susanna’s education, for her subsequent actions and words show that she understood Jewish Scripture and theology well.

For, in a moment of crisis, when the wicked judges threatened her with death, Susanna was able to paraphrase scripture in refusing them and affirming her faith (Dan. 13:22-24). Furthermore, Susanna paraphrased not just any Scripture. This woman—in danger of losing her life—identified herself with one of the most important religious figures of her faith: She quoted King David (1 Chr. 21:13). Later, when she had been unjustly condemned to death, Susanna prayed (Dan. 13:42-43), and her words show that she had a clear understanding of God’s holiness, his omniscience, and his eternity. Clearly her education helped her to gain such theological knowledge.

Martha’s Profession of Faith

Turning to the New Testament, to appreciate its respect for women’s capacity to understand, we must first draw attention to the role of reason in faith. The modern world often sentimentalizes “belief” as if it were essentially emotional and unrelated to reason. The Judeo-Christian tradition, however, recognizes faith and reason as united. Recent popes, including Leo XIII and John Paul II, have pastorally articulated the Catholic understanding of the union of faith and reason. In both Old Testament and New, miracles are presented as signs of God’s power that a reasonable person will understand. Certainly the man born blind recognized his miraculous healing as proof that Jesus was “of God” (John 9:30-33; see also John 15:24). In this light, the wise reasoning and faith of various biblical women can be understood.

Indeed, the fullest profession of faith made by anyone in the New Testament was articulated by St. Martha of Bethany: “Yes, Lord, I believe (pisteuo) that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God who has come into the world” (John 11:27). Like St. Peter, she uses the Greek word pisteuo for her belief. The word means “I have come to know,” and Pope Benedict himself translated it as “I have come to know” when discussing St. Peter’s profession of faith (The Apostles, 51). Interestingly, pisteuo is the root for the word “epistemology,” which is the philosophical analysis of how we know.

Mary’s Knowledge of Scripture

Notably, Christians accepted the reality that women are capable of articulating their faith in inspired and informed ways. A prime example is the “Magnificat,” Mary’s praise of God richly expressed in language of the Old Testament. (Only in recent decades have some biblical scholars such as David Brown asserted that Mary “could not” have composed the Magnificat herself. He assumes that it must have been written later, and, one gathers, by a man.) It is worth noting that for nearly 2,000 years Christians had no difficulty in crediting Mary with the ability to understand her religious tradition and its scripture and to praise God in terms expressive of them. Consider how frequently the Virgin Mary has been depicted holding a book at the Annunciation, to symbolize her well-formed and prayerful intellect (see “Visual Reminders of Feminine Wisdom,” p. 20).

Daughters of the Fathers

The biblical evidence shows that women were considered to be, like men, capable of intellectual development and therefore worthy of education. Jesus’ emphasis on the spiritual equality of the sexes opened up the intellectual role of women in relation to men, beyond Jewish and pagan precedent. That is saying something, for Jewish writings from late antiquity indicate that some Jewish women studied Scripture and biblical commentary.

The teachings of the Church Fathers and Early Christian art demonstrate the great Christian appreciation for educated women. For example, Hippolytus of Rome, Cyprian of Carthage, and Didymus the Blind presented Susanna’s education as exemplary. Maximus urged wives to imitate the biblical women “informed about the Bible,” including Susanna. Origen quoted the pertinent verse from her history and then asserted: “This testimony should be used to exhort parents that they should educate not only their sons, but also their daughters according to the law of God and divine study” (Stromata 10). St. Jerome repeated his comment, which became widely known in the Latin West.

St. Jerome’s Holy Women

As Christian monasteries developed, so did monastic schools. A well-documented case describes the group of noble women in Rome who sought the guidance of St. Jerome. While first beginning work on what was to become the Vulgate, Jerome became spiritual and intellectual director of these women, the first women in Rome to adopt the monastic life. They modeled their lives after that of the desert fathers.

All these women undertook intense biblical study. At St. Jerome’s direction, they also learned Hebrew so that they, like he, could pray the Psalms in the original Hebrew. They went to Bethlehem and there founded a double monastery (see “Co-ed Religion,” right).

Abundant evidence shows that St. Jerome considered women equally capable with men of such religious life, both in its ascetic simplicity and also in its rigorous intellectual study of Scripture and theology.

Marcella, a widow much older than Jerome, lived on the Aventine hill and devoted herself to a life of seclusion for the purpose of Bible study, worship of God, and ascetic practice. Blaesilla, St. Eustochium, Albina, Asella, Marcellina, and Felicita were of her community.

St. Paula’s Mastery of Hebrew

St. Paula (347-404), some 16 years younger than Jerome and also a member of Marcella’s community, became one of the most important of Jerome’s spiritual daughters. Sixteen letters from St. Jerome to Paula concern linguistic and theological issues. Evidently she read widely in exegesis, and he lent her works from his library. He answered technical questions about Hebrew linguistics, and gave lengthy explanations of the Jewish names for God and of the terms Alleluia, Amen, Maranatha, Selah, ephod, and teraphim. One letter he devoted to interpreting Psalm 127. He also treated the heresies of Montanism and Novatianism.

Melanie the Elder was praised by Jerome for her erudition: He recounted that she had not merely read, but had reread and mastered the Greek and Latin tradition of scriptural commentaries before she undertook to teach the subject.

Jerome answered women’s questions about technical religious terms and biblical interpretation, just as he answered such questions from men. The same is true of St. Augustine. From his correspondence, it is evident that he assumed women were well-educated.

A Rigorous Curriculum for Girls

Jerome also sent letters to noble parents who wanted advice about the education of their young daughters, and he called for quite demanding studies in the Bible and biblical commentaries. For instance, in 401-2, he wrote a long treatise on the subject and invited a mother to send her little girl to Bethlehem to be instructed at the double monastery by himself and the child’s grandmother, the learned Paula. By the time the girl was 16, she was in Bethlehem being educated there.

Many attractive teaching methods are set forth by Jerome, such as making the learning of the alphabet into a game. Even so, rigor is present: Children were to learn both Greek as well as their native Latin and to read the Bible and biblical commentaries. St. Jerome prescribed a program of biblical books, beginning with the Psalms and moving soon to the Gospels (deferring the Song of Songs until the girls were more grown up). Jerome included similar advice in a letter to Gaudentius about the education of his daughter Pacatula.

Egeria’s Travelogue

Many of the extant texts written by educated Christian women were composed by nuns. One such was Egeria. In the late fourth century she traveled from the western Mediterranean to the Holy Land and wrote a detailed memoir of her experiences, describing the liturgies in detail, often including the Scripture passages read in the services. Her account is famous as a valuable and early witness to liturgical celebrations in Jerusalem and its environs.

Composers and Playwrights

Women were among the writers of Greek liturgical hymns: Theodosia, Thekla the Nun, Kassia the Melodos (all ninth century), and Palaiologina (14th). The abbess Hroswitha of Gandersheim (10th century) wrote Latin plays for the nuns to perform, and Herrad of Landesberg (1130-1195) wrote the first encyclopedia for women, Hortus Deliciarum, drawing upon the ancient philosophers as well as Augustine, Boethius, and Anselm, and major Christian poets such as Prudentius.

Wisdom and holiness were also recognized in women who led domestic lives. St. Augustine recounted how his mother, St. Monica, achieved the highest intellectual and spiritual experience possible for a human being.

The Fourth Cappadocian

Historian Jaroslav Pelikan argues that St. Macrina, the eldest of ten, ought to be regarded as “the Fourth Cappadocian” because of her influential theological and philosophical learning. Pelikan groups her with the three great Cappadocian fathers, her brothers Sts. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Basil the Great, and St. Gregory Nazianzenus: “. . . at the death of their parents she became the educator of the entire family, and that in both Christianity and Classical culture. Through her philosophy and theology, Macrina was even the teacher of both of her brothers, who were bishops and theologians . . .” (Jaroslav Pelikan, Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism, 8-9).

St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote of this sister as one “who had raised herself through philosophy to the highest limit of human virtue.” Moreover, his Life of Macrina and On the Soul and Resurrection, a dialogue between Macrina and himself, portray her as a second, christianized Socrates. To this may be added her educating influence beyond the family circle, for Macrina and her brother Peter founded a double monastery.

More Important than Ever

The education of girls and women continued to be valued during the Middle Ages. In the 11th century, Peter Abelard preached a sermon to a monastic community of women and expanded on Jerome’s words, adding that Christians have even more to impart than Jews in terms of Scripture and revelation and theology, so that education is a more important requirement than it had been before.

The education of girls was the subject of a treatise by the Dominican Vincent of Beauvais (1190-1264), a text he may also have presented as a sermon. He took as a given that girls and boys could read and write both French and Latin, and beyond this he instructed parents that children ought to be instructed in “letters and morals.”

Gertrude of Hackeborn (13th century), a Benedictine nun at the monastery at Helfta, compiled a vast library there and taught the liberal arts and classical authors so that the nuns could understand Scripture and spirituality.

Advent of Universities

In the 12th century, bishops sought a means to educate their secular clergy, and thus universities arose. This was a different, urban context for education, outside of the home or monastery. Women, not being secular clergy, continued to receive education at home and in female monasteries. University instruction came to them second-hand; that is, men who studied in universities in turn educated women in their homes or monasteries.

The Dominicans created another new educational institution, houses of studies, where young members of the order would be educated in convent by university-educated priests. For instance, Albert the Great, who had taught at the University of Paris, founded the Dominican house of studies in Cologne. Dominican preaching offered reasoned exposition of Scripture, faith, and morals for the benefit of the faithful, and the priests also taught both Dominican nuns and nuns of other orders for whom they served as spiritual directors.

Learned Correspondents

Educated women also corresponded with learned men about intellectual subjects. Sometimes the woman was seeking further education or counsel; sometimes she was giving it; sometimes the written exchange was a matter of intellectual friendship or debate. Religious women such as Paula (in Rome and Bethlehem) and Hildegard von Bingen did so, and also secular women, such as Christine de Pisan (d. 1363). St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), declared a Doctor of the Church in 1970, is famous for her influential and learned correspondence, nearly 400 letters.

Protestant Suppression

In the 16th and 17th centuries, as secularism increased, respect for women decreased. Patricia Ranft has documented a direct connection between valuing spiritual dignity in general and valuing women specifically. The Protestant Reformers attacked Catholic institutions that had “fostered women’s visibility and high status.” Where monasteries were suppressed, so was women’s education, and where images were destroyed, so were reminders of the educated women of the Bible and the first fifteen centuries of Christendom.



Early Christian Education

The study of Scripture and of biblical commentary was the pinnacle of Christian education in the early and medieval Church. The “liberal arts” (liberales artes) that constituted a classical education in ancient Rome were literally the areas of knowledge that “free people” (liberi) had the opportunity to study. In contrast, slaves and poor people could not afford to hire tutors. Traditionally, the liberal arts are seven: grammar, rhetoric, and logic to prepare one for further study, and then one might go on to study the disciplines of geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy. Learning grammar and rhetoric involved reading and analyzing literature and historical texts, and for Christians either the Bible with scriptural commentary was added to this as the most important of all or was substituted entirely for pagan texts.

Christianity expanded educational opportunities for the faithful. Previously, one had to be born into a family with sufficient wealth to afford tutors. Under Christianity, however, if one were admitted to a religious community, there one might be educated. Also, children were brought to both Greek and Latin monasteries for education, and parents having their children educated at home wrote to theologians for advice. St. Basil the Great set out a curriculum and method for teaching children. He used a great deal of persuasion and attractive methods, rather than relying on compulsion to force the children to work.

Co-Ed Religion: The Double Monastery

Double monastic communities were common. The first women’s monastery, founded in the fourth century at Tabennisi, was paired with a men’s monastery. The founders were Pachomius and his sister Mary. Double monasteries began and flourished in the Near East, including the foundations of Macrina and Peter and also of Jerome and Paula at Bethlehem. In Europe also, the influential Rule of St. Benedict (c. 530) involved the education of religious men and women, and double monasteries were widespread. They existed in Anglo-Saxon England, Gaul, perhaps Ireland, certainly Spain which may have had 200 double monasteries, and in Italy, Sardinia, and Germany as well. Within double monasteries, learned women taught both men and women, as did learned men. Hilda of Whitby (614-680), for instance, directed the education of many men, five of whom became bishops. From the 10th century, separate monasteries were far more frequent, although in the 14th century new double monasteries were founded, especially by the Order of the Holy Savior, established by St. Birgitta of Sweden (d. 1373).

Visual Reminders of Feminine Wisdom

By the late third century, artists commonly depicted women with books. We see such women in frescoes, on sarcophagi, and on glass medallions. Susanna and other holy women were often depicted holding a scroll or book, to represent their religious learning and wisdom.

Later Christian art continued to show women such as St. Catherine of Siena with books or holding scrolls on which their own words were written. Church decoration depicted these women for everyone to see, and illustrated manuscripts portrayed them to the merchant and noble classes. These were familiar visual reminders that women could be learned and wise. A consequence of the Protestant Reformation, with its wide-sweeping destruction of religious art, was to reduce radically the visibility of educated women.

Further Reading

  • Prudence Allen, R.S.M. The Concept of Woman, vols. 1-2 (Eerdmans, 1997, 2002)
  • Eamon Duffy. Marking the Hours: English People and Their Prayers, 1240-1570 (Yale, 2006)
  • Eamon Duffy. “Liturgy, Learning and the Laity” and “‘Lewd and Learned’: The Laity and the Primers” in Stripping the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c. 1400-c.1580 (Yale, 1992)
  • Jaroslav Pelikan. Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism (Yale, 1993)
  • Patricia Ranft. Women and Western Intellectual Culture, 600-1500 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)
  • Patricia Ranft. Women and Spiritual Equality in Christian Tradition (St. Martin’s, 1998)
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