Learning to Read and Write: Women’s Education in the Middle Ages

By Lucie Laumonier for themedievalists.net

Centered on female education in the European Middle Ages – in particular in the later Middle Ages – this article explores the ins and outs of female literacy. “Literacy” is a disputed notion when applied to the Middle Ages.

For a long time and from the standpoint of many medieval intellectuals, literacy was measured with regards to Latin. Those who did not know Latin were considered illiterate, even if they could read and write vernacular languages. It won’t come as a surprise to readers, then, that Latin education was usually limited to women from the social elite, who received an education in a monastic setting, or at home with a private tutor.

By the fourteenth century, however, vernacular languages had become vehicles of knowledge. In France, for example, the reign of Charles V (r. 1364–1380) saw the rise of literary and scientific writings in French. An impressive new intellectual tradition in vernacular languages bloomed across Europe, whose authors, such as Christine de Pizan, attained a respected status.

Degrees of Literacy

Medieval reading was taught through the proxy of Latin, whether the learners would end up learning Latin or not. The process of learning to read through Latin illuminates the existence of intermediate levels between full literacy and complete illiteracy that connect to the ability to read and potentially write vernacular languages.

Anyone able to read in the Latin alphabet and associate sounds with letters is able to read Latin, German, Portuguese, or French, and so forth. But “phonetic literacy” (the ability to pronounce words) does not signify understanding their meaning. A number of medieval readers could pronounce a Latin text without grasping its meaning.

A side effect of this teaching method is that people able to read letters and associate them with sounds can apply it to their maternal tongue, from which they get meaning, understanding, and significance. Learning to read in Latin, therefore, leads to the ability to read in one’s own language.

Writing requires a different skillset, greater in difficulty than reading. Besides the ability to form letters, writing requires an understanding of grammar and a capacity for literary composition. From signing one’s name to writing poetry, there existed – and still exists – a wide range of intermediary levels.

In the later Middle Ages, vernacular literacy was more widespread than Latin literacy, but it was still the preserve of the elite. How many people would be recognized as literate is left to guesswork. What is certain is that more people could read than write, and that literacy was more common for the elite than for common people.

The rise of literacy in the fourteenth century went hand in hand with growing attention to models of educated women. A rich collection of imagery of women reading developed around Anne teaching the Virgin Mary to read, and of the Virgin Mary reading during the scene of the Annunciation or at other important moments of her life.

Read more here.

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