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Is the Education of Women a Modern Idea?

Catherine Brown Tkacz

Many people believe that the education of women is a modern idea, springing
from the Enlightenment. They might be surprised to learn that St. Jerome, one
of the Doctors of the Church, wrote: "Parents should educate their daughters
as well as their sons." He wrote this in A.D. 407, and he was quoting his Greek
predecessor Origen. The education of girls and women goes back to antiquity,
and it has significant Jewish and Greco-Latin roots.
At Regensburg in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI recalled the "hellenization" of
Judaism and then Christianity during antiquity, when the learning of the
Greeks was synthesized with revelation. This hellenization did advance the
education of women. The great stimulus to it, however, was the Christian
recognition of the spiritual equality of the sexes. After all, the equal capacity
to understand and live the faith relies on equal intellectual capacities.
To understand the roots of women’s education in Christian tradition, we may
look first to Scripture. The Old Testament provides a few glimpses into the
education of Jewish youths. Some passages show mothers involved in their
sons’ education in ways that demonstrate the women’s own intellectual
development. For example, in Proverbs 31, King Solomon writes about his
mother instructing him in virtue. She personally took part in her son’s
education, and Solomon considered it important to record her counsel in her
own words. Later, in the Books of Maccabees (written in the second century
B.C.), the holy mother of the seven martyred brothers is likewise depicted as
involved in her sons’ education. Before her last son is put to death, this
woman, traditionally called Salomone, reminds the boy of his education, his
training in theology by his tutor, his knowledge of the experiences of Daniel in
the lions’ den and of the three Hebrews in the fiery furnace. Salomone’s
detailed recollection of scriptural examples shows how learned she was in her
own right.
Susanna’s Education in Virtue
The Bible records one specific instance of the education of a woman: Susanna.
The Book of Daniel relates, "Her parents, being just, had instructed their
daughter according to the law of Moses" (Dan. 13:3). This simple statement
conveys a great deal. Both her father and mother were just, and her mother
as well as her father had a role in seeing that Susanna was educated. As for the
content of Susanna’s education, although the phrase "the Law of Moses" can
refer specifically to the Torah, it can also have a broader meaning, indicating
the whole of Jewish scripture. Evidently this broader meaning pertains to
Susanna’s education, for her subsequent actions and words show that she
understood Jewish Scripture and theology well.
For, in a moment of crisis, when the wicked judges threatened her with death,
Susanna was able to paraphrase scripture in refusing them and affirming her
faith (Dan. 13:22-24). Furthermore, Susanna paraphrased not just any
Scripture. This woman—in danger of losing her life—identified herself with
one of the most important religious figures of her faith: She quoted King David
(1 Chr. 21:13). Later, when she had been unjustly condemned to death,
Susanna prayed (Dan. 13:42-43), and her words show that she had a clear
understanding of God’s holiness, his omniscience, and his eternity. Clearly her
education helped her to gain such theological knowledge.
Martha’s Profession of Faith
Turning to the New Testament, to appreciate its respect for women’s capacity
to understand, we must first draw attention to the role of reason in faith. The
modern world often sentimentalizes "belief" as if it were essentially emotional
and unrelated to reason. The Judeo-Christian tradition, however, recognizes
faith and reason as united. Recent popes, including Leo XIII and John Paul II,
have pastorally articulated the Catholic understanding of the union of faith and
reason. In both Old Testament and New, miracles are presented as signs of
God’s power that a reasonable person will understand. Certainly the man born
blind recognized his miraculous healing as proof that Jesus was "of God" (John
9:30-33; see also John 15:24). In this light, the wise reasoning and faith of
various biblical women can be understood.
Indeed, the fullest profession of faith made by anyone in the New Testament
was articulated by St. Martha of Bethany: "Yes, Lord, I believe (pisteuo) that
you are the Christ, the Son of the living God who has come into the world"
(John 11:27). Like St. Peter, she uses the Greek word pisteuo for her belief. The
word means "I have come to know," and Pope Benedict himself translated it
as "I have come to know" when discussing St. Peter’s profession of faith (The
Apostles, 51). Interestingly, pisteuo is the root for the word "epistemology,"
which is the philosophical analysis of how we know.
Mary’s Knowledge of Scripture
Notably, Christians accepted the reality that women are capable of articulating
their faith in inspired and informed ways. A prime example is the "Magnificat,"
Mary’s praise of God richly expressed in language of the Old Testament. (Only
in recent decades have some biblical scholars such as David Brown asserted
that Mary "could not" have composed the Magnificat herself. He assumes that
it must have been written later, and, one gathers, by a man.) It is worth noting
that for nearly 2,000 years Christians had no difficulty in crediting Mary with
the ability to understand her religious tradition and its scripture and to praise
God in terms expressive of them. Consider how frequently the Virgin Mary has
been depicted holding a book at the Annunciation, to symbolize her well-
formed and prayerful intellect (see "Visual Reminders of Feminine Wisdom,"
p. 20).
Daughters of the Fathers
The biblical evidence shows that women were considered to be, like men,
capable of intellectual development and therefore worthy of education. Jesus’
emphasis on the spiritual equality of the sexes opened up the intellectual role
of women in relation to men, beyond Jewish and pagan precedent. That is
saying something, for Jewish writings from late antiquity indicate that some
Jewish women studied Scripture and biblical commentary.
The teachings of the Church Fathers and Early Christian art demonstrate the
great Christian appreciation for educated women. For example, Hippolytus of
Rome, Cyprian of Carthage, and Didymus the Blind presented Susanna’s
education as exemplary. Maximus urged wives to imitate the biblical women
"informed about the Bible," including Susanna. Origen quoted the pertinent
verse from her history and then asserted: "This testimony should be used to
exhort parents that they should educate not only their sons, but also their
daughters according to the law of God and divine study" (Stromata 10). St.
Jerome repeated his comment, which became widely known in the Latin West.
St. Jerome’s Holy Women
As Christian monasteries developed, so did monastic schools. A well-
documented case describes the group of noble women in Rome who sought
the guidance of St. Jerome. While first beginning work on what was to become
the Vulgate, Jerome became spiritual and intellectual director of these
women, the first women in Rome to adopt the monastic life. They modeled
their lives after that of the desert fathers.
All these women undertook intense biblical study. At St. Jerome’s direction,
they also learned Hebrew so that they, like he, could pray the Psalms in the
original Hebrew. They went to Bethlehem and there founded a double
monastery (see "Co-ed Religion," right).
Abundant evidence shows that St. Jerome considered women equally capable
with men of such religious life, both in its ascetic simplicity and also in its
rigorous intellectual study of Scripture and theology.
Marcella, a widow much older than Jerome, lived on the Aventine hill and
devoted herself to a life of seclusion for the purpose of Bible study, worship of
God, and ascetic practice. Blaesilla, St. Eustochium, Albina, Asella, Marcellina,
and Felicita were of her community.
St. Paula’s Mastery of Hebrew
St. Paula (347-404), some 16 years younger than Jerome and also a member
of Marcella’s community, became one of the most important of Jerome’s
spiritual daughters. Sixteen letters from St. Jerome to Paula concern linguistic
and theological issues. Evidently she read widely in exegesis, and he lent her
works from his library. He answered technical questions about Hebrew
linguistics, and gave lengthy explanations of the Jewish names for God and of
the terms Alleluia, Amen, Maranatha, Selah, ephod, and teraphim. One letter
he devoted to interpreting Psalm 127. He also treated the heresies of
Montanism and Novatianism.
Melanie the Elder was praised by Jerome for her erudition: He recounted that
she had not merely read, but had reread and mastered the Greek and Latin
tradition of scriptural commentaries before she undertook to teach the
Jerome answered women’s questions about technical religious terms and
biblical interpretation, just as he answered such questions from men. The
same is true of St. Augustine. From his correspondence, it is evident that he
assumed women were well-educated.
A Rigorous Curriculum for Girls
Jerome also sent letters to noble parents who wanted advice about the
education of their young daughters, and he called for quite demanding studies
in the Bible and biblical commentaries. For instance, in 401-2, he wrote a long
treatise on the subject and invited a mother to send her little girl to Bethlehem
to be instructed at the double monastery by himself and the child’s
grandmother, the learned Paula. By the time the girl was 16, she was in
Bethlehem being educated there.
Many attractive teaching methods are set forth by Jerome, such as making the
learning of the alphabet into a game. Even so, rigor is present: Children were
to learn both Greek as well as their native Latin and to read the Bible and
biblical commentaries. St. Jerome prescribed a program of biblical books,
beginning with the Psalms and moving soon to the Gospels (deferring the Song
of Songs until the girls were more grown up). Jerome included similar advice
in a letter to Gaudentius about the education of his daughter Pacatula.
Egeria’s Travelogue
Many of the extant texts written by educated Christian women were
composed by nuns. One such was Egeria. In the late fourth century she
traveled from the western Mediterranean to the Holy Land and wrote a
detailed memoir of her experiences, describing the liturgies in detail, often
including the Scripture passages read in the services. Her account is famous as
a valuable and early witness to liturgical celebrations in Jerusalem and its
Composers and Playwrights
Women were among the writers of Greek liturgical hymns: Theodosia, Thekla
the Nun, Kassia the Melodos (all ninth century), and Palaiologina (14th). The
abbess Hroswitha of Gandersheim (10th century) wrote Latin plays for the
nuns to perform, and Herrad of Landesberg (1130-1195) wrote the first
encyclopedia for women, Hortus Deliciarum, drawing upon the ancient
philosophers as well as Augustine, Boethius, and Anselm, and major Christian
poets such as Prudentius.
Wisdom and holiness were also recognized in women who led domestic lives.
St. Augustine recounted how his mother, St. Monica, achieved the highest
intellectual and spiritual experience possible for a human being.
The Fourth Cappadocian
Historian Jaroslav Pelikan argues that St. Macrina, the eldest of ten, ought to
be regarded as "the Fourth Cappadocian" because of her influential theological
and philosophical learning. Pelikan groups her with the three great
Cappadocian fathers, her brothers Sts. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Basil the Great,
and St. Gregory Nazianzenus: ". . . at the death of their parents she became
the educator of the entire family, and that in both Christianity and Classical
culture. Through her philosophy and theology, Macrina was even the teacher
of both of her brothers, who were bishops and theologians . . ." (Jaroslav
Pelikan, Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural
Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism, 8-9).
St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote of this sister as one "who had raised herself through
philosophy to the highest limit of human virtue." Moreover, his Life of Macrina
and On the Soul and Resurrection, a dialogue between Macrina and himself,
portray her as a second, christianized Socrates. To this may be added her
educating influence beyond the family circle, for Macrina and her brother
Peter founded a double monastery.
More Important than Ever
The education of girls and women continued to be valued during the Middle
Ages. In the 11th century, Peter Abelard preached a sermon to a monastic
community of women and expanded on Jerome’s words, adding that
Christians have even more to impart than Jews in terms of Scripture and
revelation and theology, so that education is a more important requirement
than it had been before.
The education of girls was the subject of a treatise by the Dominican Vincent
of Beauvais (1190-1264), a text he may also have presented as a sermon. He
took as a given that girls and boys could read and write both French and Latin,
and beyond this he instructed parents that children ought to be instructed in
"letters and morals."
Gertrude of Hackeborn (13th century), a Benedictine nun at the monastery at
Helfta, compiled a vast library there and taught the liberal arts and classical
authors so that the nuns could understand Scripture and spirituality.
Advent of Universities
In the 12th century, bishops sought a means to educate their secular clergy,
and thus universities arose. This was a different, urban context for education,
outside of the home or monastery. Women, not being secular clergy,
continued to receive education at home and in female monasteries. University
instruction came to them second-hand; that is, men who studied in
universities in turn educated women in their homes or monasteries.
The Dominicans created another new educational institution, houses of
studies, where young members of the order would be educated in convent by
university-educated priests. For instance, Albert the Great, who had taught at
the University of Paris, founded the Dominican house of studies in Cologne.
Dominican preaching offered reasoned exposition of Scripture, faith, and
morals for the benefit of the faithful, and the priests also taught both
Dominican nuns and nuns of other orders for whom they served as spiritual
Learned Correspondents
Educated women also corresponded with learned men about intellectual
subjects. Sometimes the woman was seeking further education or counsel;
sometimes she was giving it; sometimes the written exchange was a matter of
intellectual friendship or debate. Religious women such as Paula (in Rome and
Bethlehem) and Hildegard von Bingen did so, and also secular women, such as
Christine de Pisan (d. 1363). St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), declared a
Doctor of the Church in 1970, is famous for her influential and learned
correspondence, nearly 400 letters.
Protestant Suppression
In the 16th and 17th centuries, as secularism increased, respect for women
decreased. Patricia Ranft has documented a direct connection between
valuing spiritual dignity in general and valuing women specifically. The
Protestant Reformers attacked Catholic institutions that had "fostered
women’s visibility and high status." Where monasteries were suppressed, so
was women’s education, and where images were destroyed, so were
reminders of the educated women of the Bible and the first fifteen centuries
of Christendom.
Early Christian Education
The study of Scripture and of biblical commentary was the pinnacle of Christian
education in the early and medieval Church. The "liberal arts" (liberales artes)
that constituted a classical education in ancient Rome were literally the areas
of knowledge that "free people" (liberi) had the opportunity to study. In
contrast, slaves and poor people could not afford to hire tutors. Traditionally,
the liberal arts are seven: grammar, rhetoric, and logic to prepare one for
further study, and then one might go on to study the disciplines of geometry,
arithmetic, music, and astronomy. Learning grammar and rhetoric involved
reading and analyzing literature and historical texts, and for Christians either
the Bible with scriptural commentary was added to this as the most important
of all or was substituted entirely for pagan texts.
Christianity expanded educational opportunities for the faithful. Previously,
one had to be born into a family with sufficient wealth to afford tutors. Under
Christianity, however, if one were admitted to a religious community, there
one might be educated. Also, children were brought to both Greek and Latin
monasteries for education, and parents having their children educated at
home wrote to theologians for advice. St. Basil the Great set out a curriculum
and method for teaching children. He used a great deal of persuasion and
attractive methods, rather than relying on compulsion to force the children to
Co-Ed Religion: The Double Monastery
Double monastic communities were common. The first women’s monastery,
founded in the fourth century at Tabennisi, was paired with a men’s
monastery. The founders were Pachomius and his sister Mary. Double
monasteries began and flourished in the Near East, including the foundations
of Macrina and Peter and also of Jerome and Paula at Bethlehem. In Europe
also, the influential Rule of St. Benedict (c. 530) involved the education of
religious men and women, and double monasteries were widespread. They
existed in Anglo-Saxon England, Gaul, perhaps Ireland, certainly Spain which
may have had 200 double monasteries, and in Italy, Sardinia, and Germany as
well. Within double monasteries, learned women taught both men and
women, as did learned men. Hilda of Whitby (614-680), for instance, directed
the education of many men, five of whom became bishops. From the 10th
century, separate monasteries were far more frequent, although in the 14th
century new double monasteries were founded, especially by the Order of the
Holy Savior, established by St. Birgitta of Sweden (d. 1373).
Visual Reminders of Feminine Wisdom
By the late third century, artists commonly depicted women with books. We
see such women in frescoes, on sarcophagi, and on glass medallions. Susanna
and other holy women were often depicted holding a scroll or book, to
represent their religious learning and wisdom.
Later Christian art continued to show women such as St. Catherine of Siena
with books or holding scrolls on which their own words were written. Church
decoration depicted these women for everyone to see, and illustrated
manuscripts portrayed them to the merchant and noble classes. These were
familiar visual reminders that women could be learned and wise. A
consequence of the Protestant Reformation, with its wide-sweeping
destruction of religious art, was to reduce radically the visibility of educated
Further Reading
 Prudence Allen, R.S.M. The Concept of Woman, vols. 1-2 (Eerdmans,
1997, 2002)
 Eamon Duffy. Marking the Hours: English People and Their Prayers,
1240-1570 (Yale, 2006)
 Eamon Duffy. "Liturgy, Learning and the Laity" and "‘Lewd and Learned’:
The Laity and the Primers" in Stripping the Altars: Traditional Religion in
England c. 1400-c.1580 (Yale, 1992)
 Jaroslav Pelikan. Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis
of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism (Yale,
 Patricia Ranft. Women and Western Intellectual Culture, 600-
1500(Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)
 Patricia Ranft. Women and Spiritual Equality in Christian Tradition (St.
Martin’s, 1998)

Tomado de:
Catholic Answers Magazine (Printed Edition)
March 01, 2008

About the Author:

Catherine Brown Tkacz earned her Ph.D. in medieval studies from the
University of Notre Dame. Author of two scholarly books and dozens of
scholarly articles, she is also a published poet. She writes from Spokane,
Washington. This article is dedicated to her goddaughters, Christine Marie
Dits, Karen Mannino, and Morielle, Fiona, and Julia Pudewa.