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Anna Maria van Schurman and Women's natural right to study




Anna Maria van Schurman was born in 1607 to Dutch parents living in Cologne, whence they had moved temporarily from Antwerp to escape the conflict between Catholics and reformers. Anna Maria came from a family of Calvinists and she was deeply imbued with Calvinist philosophy. A few years after her birth, the family moved back to the Netherlands, to Utrecht, where Anna Maria then lived for many years of her life.  

She had three elder brothers, one of whom died aged five; following a brief spell at the local French School, she was taught at home together with her two surviving brothers who were respectively 2 and 4 years her senior. She soon overtook them in academic prowess; by the time she was 13 she was known for her talent within such diverse areas as, for example, Greek and Latin, calligraphy, embroidery, drawing, singing and playing the lute. By the age of 15 she was writing poetry in Latin, and receiving acclaim from the poets Jacob Cats and Anna Roemer Visscher.

In her twenties, Anna Maria van Schurman was known as “The Tenth Muse” and she had entered into correspondence with trendsetting male intellectuals of the time, including: professor of theology André Rivet; scholar, poet and diplomat Constantin Huygens; theologian and later Rector of the newly-established university in Utrecht, Gisbertus Voetius. They were all impressed by Schurman’s erudition. In his 1744 Latin work Cimbria Litterata, aimed at an international audience, Johannes Moller, the Danish encyclopaedia biographer, was to write of her scholarly erudition:

“She mastered Latin, Greek and Hebrew so well that she could both write and speak these languages perfectly. Besides her native languages of German and Dutch, she had, according to Ludovicus Jacobus – and her other eulogists … – acquired an outstanding knowledge of numerous foreign languages: of the national European languages, French, English, Italian and Spanish; and, among the Oriental, Aramaic, Syriac, Turkish and Arabic … In addition to these, moreover … Samaritan, Persian and Ethiopic.”

Quite a lot of languages – 16 in all – and how could a woman learn distant Oriental languages which were no longer spoken anywhere? She was a child genius, and as such gained a reputation in Utrecht. Consequently, in 1636 Gisbertus Voetius asked her to contribute to the inaugural celebrations of the new university.

She wrote a poem in Latin, furnishing it with a prose introduction in French. Voetius, like everyone else, was impressed by her erudition, and also captivated by her assurance in the reformed doctrine; a friendship and confidence thus developed between them, leading Voetius to grant her permission to attend lectures at the university – which she did, from a specially arranged place behind a curtain, so as not to disturb the male students who had never seen a woman within the university precincts. She was therefore able to follow classes in foreign languages and to acquire an education at the highest level.

The “Ethiopic language”
Voetius was himself an expert in a number of Oriental languages, and it became clear to Anna Maria van Schurman that one of the essential keys to a scholarly Biblical exegesis, which was the highest academic aim of most European universities at the time, was knowledge of what was known as the “Ethiopic language”. In connection with the 6th-century Christian mission, the Bible had been translated into a South Semitic language related to dialects familiar from South Arabian inscriptions. This language, Geez, which had died out after the 10th century, was known as “Ethiopic”.

Anna Maria van Schurman learnt this language in order to be able to participate in the theological debate. We know that she compiled a grammar of the Ethiopic language – but unfortunately it has not survived. Even the scholars of the time were surprised by this new initiative on her part. One of them, Job Ludolf, visited in order to discuss with her his own research in the area, and another, the aforementioned poet Huygens, wrote a Latin poem in praise of her in which, of the two-headed doorkeeper god Janus, we read: “Janus saw her and amazement transpired on his one brow. And the god said: ‘Whatever will it come to if the young lady acquires a new language every time I change my face – if every New Year there is a new Anna?’”

A tourist attraction
Anna Maria was truly erudite, and before long she became something of a celebrity in the Netherlands. Whether on a tourist trip or a Grand Tour, travellers visited her to hear her speak in their own language. Some arrived with a learned professor who would ask her questions and test her answers, others came to meet and converse with her themselves – the Queen of Poland, for example, and Queen Christina of Sweden.

A few years ago I attended a celebration of the life and works of Anna Maria van Schurman, held in Utrecht; the building in which she had lived in a modest apartment, and where these meetings had taken place, is still there behind the cathedral, and I walked up the cathedral aisle alongside the women’s pews and imagined her sitting there. It was in an atmosphere of solemnity that I participated in a dinner for eight at the university; among the guests were the Rector Magnificus himself and the Schurman scholar Pieta van Beek. I had the feeling of being at a banquet alongside Gisbertus Voetius and Anna Maria van Schurman in their newly-inaugurated university.

Schurman wrote and published a good deal. She had works translated into English, German and French, even though they were published in Latin, which ‘everyone’ ought to have been able to read. She published writings in many languages and she wrote letters and poems in Latin, Greek, Hebrew and French, styled in her elegant calligraphy – many are reproduced in the collection Opuscula Hebraea, Graeca, Latina, Gallica, prosaica et metrica, which was published in 1648 and in a slightly revised version in 1749.

The recipients of her letters were not exclusively men; she corresponded with, among others, the scholarly Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, daughter of Frederick V, the Elector Palantine and “Winter King” of Bohemia, and with Anne of Denmark [queen consort of James I of England and VI of Scotland. eds.]. Anna Maria and Elizabeth might well have disagreed completely on matters of religion, but they became good friends and were united in their pursuit of academic interests. Anna Maria corresponded in Hebrew and Latin with the like-minded, erudite Dorothea Moor from England. We still have letters written in Greek between Schurman and the erudite English feminist Bathsua Makin who, inspired by Schurman, in 1673 published An Essay to Revive the Ancient Education of Gentlewomen. The two women agreed on the importance of women learning the classical languages, which were otherwise men’s domain and the ticket to acceptance in intellectual circles.

Anna Maria van Schurman wrote a eulogising poem in Latin addressed to one of the early French feminists, Marie de Gournay, in which she commended her for being the completely right person to have written a defence of the innocent sex (Sic decet innocui causam te dicere sexus). Marie de Gournay had published her much-discussed work L’Égalité des homes et des femmes in 1622. She was now the grand old lady of these matters and she replied to Anna Maria van Schurman by expressing great respect for her learning, but also with a critique of the use to which she put it. Marie de Gournay thought that all the energy Anna Maria van Schurman invested in ancient and exotic languages such as Hebrew, Syriac, Aramaic and Ethiopic was very likely wasted time which could have been put to better use – for, she said, everything of importance could be read in Latin or Greek or modern languages.

In this, Schurman had to disagree. In diplomatic terms, she expressed her opinion that Hebrew, which among other things could be used in the life beyond this one – at the time it was believed to be the language spoken by God – was a good investment. As a pioneering French feminist in a country far less marked by religious strife and pressure than the Netherlands, Marie de Gournay undoubtedly meant that the campaign waged on behalf of women in the mother tongue was more important than conversations with God and mortal men conducted in Hebrew.

Relationship with Descartes
In the late 1630s, another great scholar of the age, the philosopher René Descartes, became aware of Anna Maria van Schurman’s activities; he visited her in Utrecht in 1640. At first they enjoyed great mutual respect, and she seems to have been absorbed by Descartes’  philosophy and his Cogito. However, they fell out over the significance and interpretation of the Bible and, after a while, they broke off contact. Schurman was too fanatically religious; Descartes could but shake his head when he saw how Gisbertus Voetius’ rigorous Calvinistic milieu in the Netherlands had shackled her mind.

Voetius provided her with encouragement and fine opportunities to study, but not to research and act freely. In a letter of November 1640, Descartes wrote to the mathematician Marin Marsenne: “This Voetius has blighted Miss Schurman, for she did have an eminent talent for verse, painting and other pleasures. But in the past five-six years he has gained complete mastery over her. She is occupied entirely with theological deliberation, which has caused her to lose contact with all cultured society.”

Women’s right to study
In the Netherlands, however, it was impossible to gain acceptance if one’s bearing was seen as being too feminist; the fame and respect accorded Anna Maria van Schurman is thus undoubtedly due to her continued deference to the reformed Church’s clear instruction that women were not to have the same rights as men. She was constantly praised for her humility and her unassuming demeanour. Being an unmarried woman devoted to religious matters, she was an accepted deviation – in all her incredible scholarly erudition – from women in general. She could be extolled as a miracle, the Star of Utrecht, the Tenth Muse – in short: an exception to the rule. And that is precisely what she became.

She contributed to a major debate, which was published in Latin to be read by the entire European learned sphere, by defending not only women’s right to education, but also their capacity for education – but she stressed that she was not herself an anomaly among women. In her most important work, published in Paris in 1638, Anna Maria van Schurman came into her own as a feminist. The book, De ingenii muliebris ad scientias & meliores literas capacitate, opened with tributes to Anna Maria and an amica dissertatio (friendly academic discourse) between herself and the theologian André Rivet based on a treatise she had written posing the overarching question: Num feminæ Christianæ conveniat stadium litterarum? (Whether a Christian Woman Should Be Educated). The work is deliberately structured as a university dissertation in 14 theses, which are proposed and briefly rendered in syllogism form, all intended to demonstrate that not only is it fitting, but is of benefit to all if women are engaged in intellectual pursuits. The discussion paper is included in the book.

In the subsequent debate between André Rivet and Anna Maria van Schurman, it is actually not so much disagreement about the main issue that separates them. Rivet is largely of the same mind, even though he details a number of contrary viewpoints. He argues, for example, that it is not necessary for women to learn all the languages of the humanities, particularly Classical Latin, Greek and Hebrew, in order to acquire the wisdom (sapientia) required for a thorough understanding of the Bible. Or rather, he does not think understanding is necessarily mandatory for everyone in religious matters, but he considers it equally valuable for women to exhibit devotion and worship the greatness of God, the Creator.

Women do not need to understand the language of the Bible and the Church Fathers, or be able to identify the course of the planets and other unfathomable physical phenomena in order to participate in the theological debate. As they were not going to use their learning actively in society, women could thus to some extent leave understanding to the men whose job it was to explain, in church and the community, the structure of the universe in the light of theological logic.

Rivet was full of admiration for Schurman’s skill in argumentation and he respected her opinions, but for him, like many other Calvinists and other male intellectuals, it was clearly an asset that her paper did not demand the right for women to convert learning into action in the form of political activities or top jobs in government – not to mention the Church! – but only employ it for appreciation and insight and personal morality. Schurman did not demand equality with men and she did not insist that all women should be allowed to study. She thought that studying was only appropriate for women who had the opportunity due to the fact that they were provided for or were of private means and did not personally have to take care of children and relatives or the home. She was only talking about the time left over after the real duties had been completed – time which would otherwise be spent on inferior activities.

Up to this point Rivet and Schurman could agree with one another, but thereafter their opinions diverged. Rivet thought that only the few extraordinary women like Anna Maria van Schurman should be allowed to study; whereas Anna Maria van Schurman considered everyone to be of equal worth and equal potential, and thought that everyone had the right to and would derive benefit from education and knowledge. Therefore, any women who had the time to do so ought to study; but this provision should not apply exclusively to the so-called exceptions, those women who were, in the contemporaneous expression, supra sexum, beyond their gender.

It suits Rivet very well that Schurman distances herself from a feminist such as the Italian Lucretia Marinella, who in 1600 had published an extremely controversial book on women’s superiority to men, La nobiltà et eccellenza delle donne, co’ difetti, e mancamenti de gli uomini. On the other hand, Schurman returns a number of times to Marie de Gournay’s book about equality between men and women. She reserves her greatest compliments for de Gournay’s style, it is true, whereas she employs greater caution in her comments about the content. Rivet himself actually sent her material about de Gournay, which was surely a declaration of confidence in Anna Maria’s construal of the subject matter.

A role model
Rivet is thus, all things considered, satisfied with Schurman’s paper, but along with many other men he finds it essential to highlight the uniqueness of her talent. She is a one-off – she has to be, as it is implicit that the social order will collapse should there be too many of her type. And this is where Anna Maria has to object. To display herself as an object of admiration is anathema to her, she says. And this could be verified given that it was already stated in published works, and in letters she had received from many male correspondents, that she was admirable in her humility and modesty and chasteness. So she is indeed within her good, logical rights when she says that in truth she is nothing special when it comes to her intelligence either. She is like every other woman. Perfectly normal. And she is convinced that were these other women given the opportunity to study, as she has, then they too would develop their talent for learning just as much as if they were men.

Without expressing it directly, Anna Maria van Schurman is thus trying to elicit recognition that it is natural for women to study. Perhaps this is where she rendered her fellow women the greatest service, for this view, combined with her support of other learned women and her generosity in recognising their talents, afforded courage and inspiration to countless others in the generations to come. In Denmark, Schurman passed on the title of “Decima Musa” to the most learned Danish woman of the age, Birgitte Thott, when writing the first of 12 tributes for Thott’s major Seneca translation of 1658. In her works arguing that women should have access to education, Birgitte Thott includes references to Anna Maria van Schurman’s views.

It is obvious there was a network of learned women and a desire to give more women access to education. In 1639, the physicist Jan van Beverwyck had dedicated Van de Wtnementheyt des Vrouwelijcken Geslachts, on the superiority of the female gender, to Schurman and had placed her above all other women, those of antiquity and the current day alike. She was thought to be sincere when she declared herself uninterested in being given this position; it is likely that it was not requisite modesty that caused her protest, but that she really did not wish to be elevated above her fellow women, considering the mission to elevate the female gender as such to be of the greater importance. The most precise exposition of this view that I have seen is a statement made in 1998 by Joyce L. Irwin in Anna Maria van Schurman: Whether a Christian Woman Should Be Educated and Other Writings from Her Intellectual Circle. On page 1, Irwin writes of Schurman:

"Insisting that she was not an anomaly but that women in general were capable of learning, she exerted significant influence for the cause of women’s education both by advocating it and by serving as an incontestable example."

To the great disappointment and surprise of many, in her early forties Anna Maria van Schurman broke with her intellectual circles, first spending 20 years taking care of two old and blind aunts who needed constant attention, and then joining a religious sect. In this latter community, where practice of piety, praxis pietatis, was paramount, she soon assumed a maternal role with regard to the other women, while the founder of the sect, Jean de Labadie, took on the status of the Labadists’ father.

Seemingly, Anna Maria had here found a meaningful life in which, regardless of the sect’s arduous circumstances under the constant persecution caused by their beliefs, she came out of her involuntary isolation. The Tenth Muse descended from Helicon and joined a group of ostracised religious idealists, where she could feel she was being of real use to other people. The first chapters of her autobiography, Eukleria, give glimpses of her childhood and youth which bear this out. The book was written in Latin and was published in 1673. Anna Maria van Schurman died in the Labadists’ community in 1678.

Despite her withdrawal from the public arena, Anna Maria van Schurman could not obliterate her tracks. In her day, Europe’s most learned woman was not forgotten; she was nurtured and admired and even ended up as a tourist attraction. Posterity saw her as a role model for a number of generations that followed her. Today, over 400 years later, she is seen as a major figure, a single woman, complex and inscrutable, who lived her life to the full in the academic world and in religious communities. A brilliant woman denied the forum for development that she merited – but a woman who never gave up.


Alenius, Marianne: “Anna Maria van Schurmans veje og vildspor i universitetslivet”, in Museum Tusculanum, Vol. 57. Copenhagen 1987, pp. 9-23.

Alenius, Marianne: “Kvinder er ikke mennesker”, in Nordisk Kvindelitteraturhistorie, Vol. 1, ed. Elisabeth Møller Jensen et al., Copenhagen.

van Beek, Pieta: De eerste Studente Anna Maria van Schurman, Utrecht 2004 (English-language version in preparation).

Birch, Ana: Anna Maria van Schurman – Artist, Scholar, Saint. London 1909.

Irwin, Joyce L.: “Anna Maria van Schurman: The Star of Utrecht (1607-1678)”, in: Female Scholars, ed. J. R. Brink, Montreal 1980.

Irwin, Joyce L. : (edited and translated) Anna Maria van Schurman: Whether a Christian Woman Should Be Educated and Other Writings from Her Intellectual Circle, from the series: The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe, Chicago 1998. 

Marianne Alenius is the director of Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen.

Translation: Gaye Kynock

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