There may be no other women’s rights issue still so controversial and hotly debated than equality of learning within the realm of education. Sixteenth century education establishments had masculinized the very pursuit of knowledge so much so that women were intellectually challenged and shunned at nearly every open opportunity, leaving them with no form of retaliation but the written word. Forced to don the guises of men, many female students were historically documented as having gone undercover into countless universities in order to gain a foundational education (Larrington, 185). Unfortunately, it would be some time before those of power within the educational hierarchy would come to adopt a realization of a woman’s intellectual potential and rights.
Although many young girls continued to be “educated chiefly in the home, by their mothers, nurses or tutors” (Larrington, 186), many others were turned away from institutes of higher learning based solely on their sex. There is arguably no better an example of a woman’s literary satirization of the masculinization of education and medieval view of knowledge than an excerpt from the play “Mary of Nijmeghen” (or “Marikia”), written by 14th Century poetess and authoress Anna Bijns.
The play recounts the tale of a young, female protagonist named Mary who “sells her soul to the Devil in return for instruction.” (Larrington, 210) This chilling transaction between the woman and the universal icon for the epitome of all that is evil in the world resonates with a profound statement concerning views of women, education and learning as they relate to Sixteenth Century cultural norms. By employing the use of the Biblical figure Satan (the Devil), Bijns wields a powerful religious metaphor to satirize the unfortunate reality of her day: that a woman’s pursuit of knowledge was seen as inherently evil and dangerous to her own mental and social well-being by those males holding power over the education establishments and, perhaps, by the male population in general. By paralleling her own metaphor to that of Satan’s tempting of Eve with the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2:9), Bijns evokes a cultural and religious prose with which many readers, both male and female, would have been familiar.
The societal impact of such intellectual discrimination left a profound mark upon early Fourteenth, Fifteenth and Sixteenth Century women writers and potential female scholars. Such vivid imagery and linguistic assertions of female intellectual equality with their male counterparts sought to give to women a sense of individuality and purpose not previously known or experienced. It is evident even from Bijins’ piece that women were often subjected to physical and verbal abuse from their husbands, seen here when the protagonist Mary addresses the Devil: “Friend, I am sitting here almost out of my mind, so upset and so discomposed by the scolding words that I have had to endure without any fault of mine-‘whore, slut, bitch’-that I would as gladly entrust myself to the Devil as to God, for I sit here half mad.” (Larrington, 211)
However, the masculinization of the pursuit of knowledge and entrance into education seemed to be socially held in place by the cultural norms and expectancies of women as mothers. “Why did God create women? Not to keep men company…but rather so that the earth should be populated with souls for God…Women expected, and were expected, to be mothers.” (Larrington, 77) Because such hierarchies within families had been established by men from the beginning, and were continually enforced and held in place by men, there was naturally little room for the movement of women towards knowledge and learning. The vast majority were far too busy “generating children” (Dominican Nicholas of Gorran; Larrington, 77), maintaining household cleanliness and affairs, and satisfying their husbands sexually to even consider the ideas of individuality or education. This begs the question of male dominance and control over large societal functions such as the role of women within a specific society and culture.
Furthermore, the institution of marriage, handed down by the church, had additionally become a masculinized process and tradition and hence led to the idea that men were to be relationally dominant over and intellectually superior to their wives. This only furthered the aforementioned problems of inequality. Not only had the notion and practice of Eleventh Century courtly love waned by this time period, but many women were in fact expected to marry a man of wealth, power and intellect who would be able to provide for her. Marriage had become more of a “social mechanism designed to regulate the distribution of women between male members of a society and to formalize the links between a man and his offspring” (Larrington, 8) than a union of love, friendship and lifelong commitment.
Spanish moralist Francisco Ximenez echoed well the proverbial thought processes of many men of the time period when he wrote that women are as “instable and mobile as a leaf on a tree shaken by the wind” (Larrington, 185) Unfortunately, this mindset evidenced itself culturally as Fifteenth and Sixteenth Century women were valued more for their ability to reason through family issues or to be witty, as opposed to their ability to retain deep, intellectual understanding of complex and intricate subjects. In essence, the belief was that a woman who retained a certain level of intellectual depth would be unattractive. A woman was not meant for smarts, but instead for practicality and physicality.
For untold centuries, women were rejected and ridiculed for their desires and attempts to pursue knowledge, learning and formal educations within universities. It is unfortunate that it required hundreds of years of intellectual, social and gender discrimination for male dominated education establishments to even open their doors to women scholars and students. And it would be many years later still before the first female doctors, scientists, lawyers and mathematicians appeared on the scene. Such a lengthy history of discrimination has indeed left its consequences upon society as a whole.
Larrington, Carolyne. Women and Writing in Medieval Europe. Routledge Publishers, 1995.