Can Jehanne Read And Write?

Cydippe writing a letter in bed,
epistle of Cydippe to Aconcius.
Harley 4867 f. 170v
France, late 15th-century

I’ve been working through M. Modar Neznanich‘s Research Questions for Developing a Persona. Recently I hunted for information on number 23. Would your persona have been literate in your chosen culture/time-frame?” I wanted an excuse for all the writing I do. Yes, even in bed. What about you?

Many in the SCA believe in the Middle Ages few people could read or write. So they contrive a persona-story that allows them those skills. But is that true? And what about for women?

The answer is “it depends”.

As expected it depends on the era, status, and gender.

If you are curious you might start by looking into Medieval European education. But with a female persona it’s easier by simply googling Medieval women’s literacy. From there you find intriguing tidbits.The daughters of Emperor Charlemagne (742-814 A. D.) were educated at the Palace of Aachen’s school with other nobles’ daughters so in their future they’d live up to their social position. But they are early nobility in a central European area.

Later you’ll find

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the monks and nuns were the literate. Some nuns even contributing to the era’s scholarly research, like the women above.

The first universities emerged in the 11th century and women were usually excluded. But with a few exceptions.

In Italy educating women in medicine was more liberal than other places. A few examples are:

And you can’t forget Heloise of Paraclete, a 12th-century French nun, abbess and scholar. She even sent a letter to her lover Peter Abelard writing:

We need never lack the pleasures of conversation… Even when separated we could enjoy each other’s presence by exchange of written messages.

So, from this, you would guess Jehanne could write just to do her job.

Jehanne Bening was born in Ghent, the Duchy of Burgundy, April 16,
1439, or possibly 1440, by the Gregorian calendar date. She -or I- eventually became a manuscript illuminator and writer, an apprentice to Sanders Bening.

But what about Medieval women in general or was Jehanne special because of her occupation? Despite successes, you still find cultural bias affecting women’s education during the Middle Ages. It’s difficult to know from recorded history because historians write from their own viewpoint. But women achieved greater significance after the 14th-century plagues
The plagues decimated Europe’s population and workforce. Women then often took on traditionally male jobs. That included the need to read court documents. This encouraged more women to learn to read.
But could a woman be an author?
Christine de Pizan wrote the first history book about women from their viewpoint and for women. She argued for women’s achievements giving them a positive view. Since Pizan wrote her books for women there must have been educated women to read them.
In her book The City of Ladies, finished in 1405, she writes

I am amazed by the opinion of some men who claim that they do not want their daughters or wives to be educated because they would be ruined as a result… Not all men (and especially the wisest) share the opinion that it is bad for women to be educated. But it is very true that many foolish men have claimed this because it upset them that women knew more than they did.

You also see this in the Paston lettersMargaret Paston was the daughter of John Mautby, a wealthy English farmer. When her father died she inherited his land. After she married John Paston, also a large landowner and lawyer, she looked after their large combined estates. When they were separated they communicated by letters. Hundreds survive providing us insight into 15th-century daily life.

But the biggest increase in women’s literacy came from Johannes Gutenberg‘s printing press in 1450. His printing press both caused and resulted in a widespread literacy increase.

All things considered, Jehanne could read and write. Her time, place and occupation show she could.  More specifically, this is mentioned in the book Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe.

What about you? No cheating now. Would your persona be able to read and write? Where would you look for that information?

Related Prior Post:  
Why I’m Thrilled With My New Found Interest – Finding Jehanne

External Related Sources: You can find an extensive list of works by and about Medieval women writers on Fordham University’s Internet History Sourcebook.

Categories: Persona

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