Women's education in the Renaissance?

A friend and I are having a discussion on the average education of Shakespeare’s playgoers, and I realized that I have no idea what the state of women’s education during the Elizabethan/Jacobean era was like.

She’s arguing that virtually no women in the middle and lower classes were educated; that the model woman was uneducated; that it was generally believed that too much education did physical harm to a woman (reduced fertility); that a middle or lower-class woman in turn-of-the-17th-century London would have no exposure to classical literature.

Again, I’m pretty clueless, but this seems like an exaggeration to me. From a note I remember in a biography of Abigail Adams, by the mid-18th century, education in women was highly prized. You wanted your daughter to be able to speak Latin, French, and Italian, sing and play an instrument, be well-read and able to converse on said literature easily.

Do I remember this note correctly? And/or was there a major shift in ideology from the Renaissance to the Age of Enlightenment? I know there were women like Artemisia and Heloise in the Middle Ages who were very well-educated, but were they aberrations?

The one major area that women advanced in during the Renaissance was access to education. The lower classes would have little education, as a rule, that wasn’t intensely local. Formal schooling for any but the upper classes was sketchy at best. But they would have learned classic lessons in church, and there were always travelling morality stories, bards, etc. to spread tales.

If you had money. Only the upper class cared about that. Then she could be married off to a richer guy for a hefty sum even if she was homely.

FYI During research for a women’s lit class I found that women were mistrusted primarily due to original sin construed as being Eve’s fault. They inherited her guilt; thus leaving any responsibility to them would be a mistake. Educating men and not women was a way for men to be superior.

Female education tended to be focused away from “book learning” and concentrated more on practial skills - ie. homemaking and so on.

Shakespeare’s audience, being predominantly Londoners, were atypical, for Londoners (of both sexes) were more likely to be literate and they had access to a wider range of books than the rest of the population. The standard figure - which derives from David Cressy’s classic work on the subject - is that perhaps a quarter of women in London in the late sixteenth century were ‘literate’. The comparable figure for the men was 40%. The rough pattern over time and place in early modern England is that men were twice as likely to be literate as women.

‘Literate’ in this context means being able to sign one’s name, because that is the only measure that can be quantified in any meaningful way. Everyone agrees that this was not the same as being able to write anything else, nor was it the same as being able to read. (Some could read without being able to sign their name, some could sign their name without being able to read.) Being able to read print was not the same as being able to read handwriting.

But, even allowing for all the qualifications, it does seem likely that the women in Shakespeare’s London who had what we would recognise as basic literacy skills were more than just a small elite. Some would have been taught them at school, for some girls do seem to have attended elementary dame schools which covered the basics. More girls would have been taught them at home. What made the difference was probably not money but having other members of the family who were already literate.

Moreover, an inability to read need not mean that someone was unfamilar with books. Being able to read silently was a more specialised skill than being able to read aloud and many illiterate women would have heard others around them reading. Reading was a more communal activity than we think of it.

Then there is the issue of Latin. Female readers were far less likely than male ones to have been taught Latin. That undoubtedly cut them off from certain types of literature. But Shakespeare himself is the prime example to show how much was already available in English. Even if Jonson’s ‘small Latin and less Greek’ comment was overstated, everyone agrees that what Shakespeare was reading was overwhelmingly works in English.

Which is not to say that most would have got most of his references. Very few readers, male or female, rich or poor, Londoners or provincials, actually read that many books. Even skilled readers were always more likely to re-read a book they already had than read a new one. Readers’ cultural hinterlands were narrower than we might imagine. Which is why the point about listening to Shakespeare and other playwrights was so often not to be able to recognise the literary allusion so much as to be aware that it was probably an allusion of some sort. Shakespeare sounded clever, even if you were unsure why.