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
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.
Admittedly, 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. Indeed, some historians argue that in the early Middle Ages among the upper classes women were more likely to read and write than their husbands and brothers. Men, they hypothesize, were too busy fighting, leaving women to provide basic education to children while also maintaining 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.
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.