Women's literacy during the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, women were considered to be inferior to men and were not formally educated. It was common for women to be unable to read and write in their own language. Even though some were fortunate enough to be taught how to read, some were still unable to write. Women were not usually taught how to read Latin, the language of male scholars and people of the Church, who also happened to be male. In the later Middle Ages, even most nuns were not able to learn Latin.

Partially literate women became increasingly common in the later Middle Ages; but very few women were given the opportunity to learn to read and write. One of the most famous women readers , the Virgin Mary was often portrayed in medieval paintings and illuminations depicting the Annunciation, for example. Illustrations would show Mary before or beside an open Bible, implying that she was able to read. Pictures of the Annunciation were common, and people would most likely come across pictures of Mary reading in their Bibles or payer books. Mary was not the only woman to be portrayed with an open book beside her. For example, a painting by Jean Bourdichon shows Anne of Brittany kneeling before an open book. Another painting by Robert Campin and his assistants shows a woman reading in a painting of the Madonna and child with saints.

In the schools of the Middle Ages, reading and writing were taught separately Some aristocratic women were taught to read but might not be able to write themselves. Some of the most famous women during the Middle Ages were able to read. One of the greatest queens ever to rule England was Eleanor of Aquitaine who could read but not write. She compensated for that by have people called scribes to write for her. During her reigns as the Queen of England and France, Eleanor was very concerned about the literacy of people living in Aquitaine . The famous poet Marie de France may have performed or presented her stories to the court of Eleanor and her second husband, Henry II. Marie wrote fables and lais for a living, and her stories became so popular during the Middle Ages that her works entertained both the French and English courts and were translated into many different languages.

Throughout the Middle Ages, nuns were taught to read portions of the Bible, and many of them were able to write as well. One of the most famous nuns was Heloise. Heloise would often communicate with Abelard by writing letters. Many scholars were unconvinced that a woman would be able to write letters in Latin to Abelard, and they were convinced that a man was really writing to Abelard or that Abelard wrote them himself. Heloise was so interested in literacy that once she became the abbess of the Paraclete she taught all her nuns how to read and write. If any women wished to join her abbey, she would have to bring a dowry of books.

It might be uncommon for most women to read and write during the Middle Ages, but many were able to read and write due to special circumstances. Many pictures of women saints are shown with an open book beside them, suggesting that women were able to learn to read and that women's literacy was not unheard of during the Middle Ages. Many famous women who lived during that time in history were able to read or write because they were given the opportunity to learn.