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Surprising Thoughts on Female Education from the Middle Ages

On a whim I picked up a couple of books on Katherine of Aragon at a recent library sale. I found myself quickly fascinated with this woman who is so often overshadowed by her replacement, Anne Boleyn. In particular I was intrigued by the rigorous classical education she received.

Much is made about how well educated Henry VIII was; he was the ideal Renaissance prince, and later king. But Katherine was just as well educated as he. Her mother, the accomplished and well educated Queen Isabella, oversaw the education for all her children and made sure that her daughters as well as her son received a thorough classical education. The daughters of Isabella, all future queens, were expected to be more than simply the mothers of future kings; they were expected to be co-rulers and were educated accordingly.

Young Katherine studied the Bible, of course, but also the classics: Prudentius, Juventus, St. Ambrose on St. Augustine, St. Gregory, St. Jerome, Seneca, and the Latin historians; she was also instructed in both civil and canon law. Her education included, of course, the study of Latin, but she was no mere dabbler in languages: she was fluent in Latin! In fact, because she spoke no English, she communicated entirely in Latin upon her move to England as a teenager.

Queen Isabella expected her daughters to be true rulers, not merely the wives of kings, and therefore she provided an education for her daughters which rivaled that of any male monarch. And yet, she also cultivated in her daughters the more traditional female skills. Isabella personally oversaw instruction in the basic spheres of Renaissance femininity—music, dance, and drawing—and in basic domestic skills—spinning, weaving, baking, sewing. Katherine’s domestic training is particularly noteworthy, as biographer Antonia Fraser points out, because she was being trained to be a queen, not a merchant’s wife. But Queen Isabella trained Katherine to be a complete helpmeet to her husband, the future king of England (Katherine was betrothed to the Prince of Wales at age 3 and spent her whole life preparing for her role as the Queen of England).

Once she ascended the throne, Katherine participated in everything from foreign policy and military strategy to running the domestic side of her household. She had a constant preoccupation with providing for her husband’s domestic needs. She personally sewed his shirts and provided meals when the king insisted on late-night impromptu dining. She even made sure that he had clean linens when he was away at war. She was truly a complete helpmeet to her husband: acting both as co-ruler and as domestic housewife.

It would be easy to dismiss Katherine’s education as a rare exception. She was after all a royal. However, even in her own lifetime, she became the model of female education. Juan Luis Vives, friend of the queen and tutor to Princess Mary, wrote The Instruction of a Christian Woman in 1524. He dedicated the book to the queen and acknowledged in the preface that she was the model for his vision of female education.

Praised by both Erasmus and Thomas More, Vives called for classical education of all women, regardless of social class. He argued that women were at least equal to men intellectually, and possibly even superior. He further claimed that intellectual companionship was more important in a marriage than procreation. One would expect to hear statements like these in a modern feminist book, not in a 16th-century tome!

Additionally Vives believed that an educated woman was important not only for the health of the marriage but was good for society and the state. He wrote, “For what is more fruitful than the good education and order of women, the one half of all mankind.”

But what is of particular interest to me is that in addition to calling for universal classical education for women, for arguing for the development of women’s minds, he also advocated the study of the domestic arts as part of the ideal female education. He did not see those two types of training as mutually exclusive, and he pointed to Katherine as his model.

This tension between intellectual and domestic training continues to dominate discussions about female education, particularly in Christian circles (in secular circles, the domestic training side is summarily dismissed). Perhaps the resolution to this tension was offered almost 500 years ago. It’s not either, or; it’s both, and.

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