“A Truer and Deeper Knowledge”: Anna Maria van Schurman’s The Learned Maid (1659)

The title of this 1659 English translation, The Learned Maid, hardly captures the serious intent of its Latin original, Dissertatio de ingenii muliebris. When Anna Maria van Schurman published her “dissertation on women’s capacity for education” in the Dutch Republic in 1641, it was not the first or the last such work, but it was surely the most cogent and unarguable manifesto of its kind.

The English translation bore the subtitle “A Logicall Exercise upon this Question: Whether a Maid may be a Scholar?”, and Van Schurman answers immediately. “We hold the Affirmative, and will endeavour to make it good” is her businesslike first sentence. She continues in the same vein with fourteen brief syllogisms before concluding with a preemptive refutation of arguments that might be advanced against her. For example, the fact that at least some women were learned in the past shows that women are capable of learning.

In her Calvinist world, she sought to show first that women could study just as men — for “all Mankind have in them by Nature a desire of knowledge”. Then, she had to persuade men that good Christian women might study. Finally, she wished to prove that any and all studies were desirable, not just those directed toward an end, such as domestic proficiency or religious devotion.

What provoked this bold declaration of rights? Five years earlier, van Schurman had been invited to write a Latin verse to mark the inauguration of the University of Utrecht, in which she daringly made the point that she herself was nevertheless disqualified from actually studying there because of her sex. Thanks, however, to the intercession of Gisbertus Voetius, a professor of theology at the new university who had issued the original invitation, van Schurman was then allowed to attend lectures in medicine, theology, and literature (where she was obliged to sit screened from the gaze of the male students). This made her the first woman to go university in northern Europe (there had been female lecturers and two students in medieval Italy and Spain), although she did not pursue her studies to graduation.

Anna Maria’s family was Flemish, though she was born in 1607 in Cologne where her father, Frederik, had taken the family to escape the Roman Catholic “Spanish fury”. The family moved again when she was a child and rented a house in the cathedral square of Utrecht. Her father resolved that she should be educated like her brothers, which meant that he taught her at home himself. She became proficient in more than a dozen languages, as well as in theology, history, geography, and mathematics. Frederik’s dying wish in 1623 was that his daughter should avoid the intellectually stifling “shackles of marriage”.

She followed his advice, and soon earned an international reputation for her scholarship, her poetry, and her art and craftwork. As a child, she had produced intricate paper cuttings, which are still displayed in Dutch museums. She taught herself drawing, wood carving, embroidery, painting, wax modelling, and diamond-point engraving on glass, and also received instruction in engraving on copper, in which she achieved real distinction. A striking self-portrait in this medium served her as a kind of calling card. Wearing a dress with an elaborate lace collar, embroidered sleeves and bodice, and sporting frizzy hair fringed as was the fashion, she casts a sceptical side eye; it is a serious look, but one perhaps suppressing a smile. Her Latin inscription below reads modestly:

Not mental pride nor graceful form drove me
To engrave my features in everlasting copper.
But since my rough graving tool could do no better here,
I would hardly turn sooner to more important subjects.
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Self-portrait engraving by Anna Maria van Schurman, 1633 — Source.

Van Schurman was hailed as “the Dutch Minerva” and the “tenth muse”, and was pursued by intellectual men who refused to believe her self-proclaimed celibacy. She corresponded with leading intellectuals and received visits from powerful women such as Queen Christina of Sweden. When René Descartes called on her one day, he was surprised to find her reading the Scriptures in Hebrew. When he suggested this was a waste of her time, she responded that the word of God should be read in the original language.

The exchange reveals the importance of her linguistic prowess in fourteen languages. She acquired each for a reason: Dutch was the vernacular where she grew up as German had been in her early years; French was the language of the court; English was helpful because there were many English living in exile in the Dutch Republic at the time; Italian was probably studied for the same reason that many learned it — to read Dante and Boccaccio in the original. Latin was the language of international scholarship, especially in the sciences and mathematics.

In addition to Hebrew, she knew Aramaic and Greek, the chief languages of the Old and New Testaments respectively. Her remaining languages were also acquired in the interests of biblical scholarship: Arabic as the language most widely spoken in the Holy Land; Syriac, used by Christian communities in the region; and Samaritan (the Samaritan Torah became known to western scholars in 1631). Ethiopic (now called Ge‘ez, a south Semitic language, for which van Schurman compiled a grammar) appears in a very early translation of the Bible that included additional books, notably the Book of Enoch, not regarded as canonical by most of the Christian churches. Likewise, Chaldean, a variant of Aramaic, was the original language of the Books of Daniel and Ezra. Unlike these, Persian was not a Semitic language, although parts of the Bible, such as the Book of Ezra, draw on Persian sources. She may have acquired this in order to read Persian poetry, as well as for etymological reasons, since in 1647, a Dutch linguist theorized a new link between western languages to Persian.

Van Schurman’s overriding aim was to be able to reach a more accurate understanding of the Bible. More especially, she wanted to establish the original biblical position on the equality of women, and to determine whether passages where it is said, for example, that women are “the weaker vessel”, and that they should play no part in church life or scholarship, were the reflection of social prejudices of the writers or later translators. For this, it was important to get as close to the source material as possible.

In the end, though, van Schurman found a different way. In 1669, she made a spiritual home with the Labadists, a sect created by Jean de Labadie, a French convert to Calvinism. Labadism stood for absolute sex equality without hierarchy so that all could preach and share ideas. The sect attracted the attention of many intellectuals during its short flourishing, including the naturalist and artist Maria Sibylla Merian, Sophia, Electress of Hanover, the Quaker William Penn, and the philosopher John Locke.

With this move, her understanding of faith changed, and she accepted that it was not necessary to know everything in order to be a good Christian. In her autobiographical tract, Eukleria (1673), she wrote: “My own conviction now is that the slightest experience of God’s love can give us a truer and deeper knowledge of Sacred Scripture than the most comprehensive science of that sacred language itself.”

With the Labadists’ travelling community, too, she at last found an escape from her gushing admirers and would-be paramours. After moving several times in search of a place where they would not be persecuted, Anna Maria van Schurman died in the Friesland town of Wieuwerd in May, 1678, at the age of seventy.

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