The Growth of Female Literacy in the Middle Ages (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: The Growth of Female Literacy in the Middle Ages

Q1: What is taking place in sources 1 and 4?

A1: Both sources show women writers to powerful people. This suggests that Christine de Pizan and Bridget of Alvasta were both considered to be important writers.

Q2: Study source 5. Select examples of Geoffrey Chaucer expressing an opinion.

A2: An opinion is a view or judgement formed about a particular matter. Therefore Chaucer is expressing an opinion when he claims that if women had written most of the books, they "would have written more of men's wickedness".

Q3: Compare the views expressed in sources 3 and 6. Give reasons why these two authors disagree about the subject.

A3: Philip III is very much against women being taught to read or write as he believed "much harm has come from this knowledge". Christine de Pizan was of the opinion that women should receive a good education. She argued that men like Philip III were "foolish" and held this view "because it displeased them that women knew more than they did." Christine de Pisan believed in sexual equality. Philip III, on the other hand, wanted men to maintain their privileged position in society.

Q4: In the Middle Ages there was an increase in the percentage of women who could read and write. Give as many reasons as you can for this.

A4: There were several reasons why there was a growth in the number of women who could read and write during the Middle Ages. Women such as Christine de Pizan argued strongly in favour of women being educated. The influence of people like Christine de Pisan grew with the introduction of printed books at the end of the 15th century. (Christine de Pisan's books were amongst the first books to be printed in Britain.) Printed books were also cheaper than handwritten books and therefore more people could afford to buy them. Attitudes gradually changed and mothers began to encourage their daughters to learn to read. Reading also became a more pleasant experience with the introduction of chimney flues, glass windows and eyeglasses.

Q5: Was the growth in literacy during the Middle Ages an example of "rapid" or "gradual" change?

A5: The growth of literacy in the Middle Ages was an example of gradual change. However, at certain times, the pace of this change became faster. The most important example of this was the development of printing at the end of the 15th century.