The Growth of Female Literacy in the Middle Ages (Classroom Activity)

In the Middle Ages men were more likely to be literate than women. The main reason for this was that women were usually denied an education. Even in wealthy families, it was often considered wrong to spend time and money on teaching daughters to read and write. It has been estimated that "in the later Middle Ages out of the total population 10 per cent of men and I per cent of women were literate." Most men were very hostile to the idea of women becoming literate.

Women who were nuns were the most likely to be literate. Despite the many obstacles they faced, some women learnt to read and write. Women's names appear on many documents that have survived. Some women authors also used male names.

Gradually attitudes began to change. Christine de Pizan, a very influential writer in the Middle Ages, argued that it was extremely important for mothers to arrange for their daughters to be taught how to read and write. Other important writers during this period included Marie de France and Margery Kempe.

It also became fashionable in rich families to give daughters a Book of Hours. These books contained a collection of different prayers and stories about the lives of saints and were often used to teach girls to read. Many books of hours were made for women. There is some evidence that they were sometimes given as a wedding present from a husband to his bride.

There were other factors that encouraged the growth of literacy. The introduction of the chimney flue that helped remove smoke from rooms, and the growing number of houses with glass windows helped to provide a more pleasant environment for reading. The invention of eyeglasses in the 13th century also helped those people with poor eyesight.

Finally, the introduction of printed books at the end of the 15th century dramatically reduced the costs of buying books. The growth in women's literacy is reflected in the wills that have survived from the 14th and 15th centuries. These wills show that there was an increasing number of women owning books. What is more, women were more likely to leave their books to their daughters than their sons.

Primary Sources

(Source 1) Christine de Pisan presents her book to Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France
(Source 1) Christine de Pisan presents her book to Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France

(Source 2) Part of a letter written by a nun called Heloise of Paraclete. The letter was sent to Peter Abelard, the father of Heloise's child, Astrolabe. (c. 1130)

We need never lack the pleasures of conversation... Even when separated we could enjoy each other's presence by exchange of written messages.

(Source 3) Christine de Pizan, City of Ladies (1405)

I am amazed by the opinion of some men who claim that they do not want their daughters or wives to be educated because they would be ruined as a result... Not all men (and especially the wisest) share the opinion that it is bad for women to be educated. But it is very true that many foolish men have claimed this because it upset them that women knew more than they did.

(Source 4) Bridget of Alvasta presenting a copy of her book Revelations to her bishop in about 1355.
(Source 4) Bridget of Alvasta presenting a copy of her book Revelations to her bishop in about 1355.

(Source 5) Geoffrey Chaucer, The Wife of Bath's Tale (c. 1395)

By God, if women had written stories as clerks have written their oratories, They would have written more of men's wickedness, than all the sons of Adam could redress.

(Source 6) Philip III of Navarre, letter to a friend (c. 1350)

Women should not learn to read and write unless they are going to be nuns, as much harm has come from such knowledge.

Questions for Students

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

Question 2: Study source 5. Select examples of Geoffrey Chaucer expressing an opinion.

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

Question 4: 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.

Question 5: Was the growth in literacy during the Middle Ages an example of "rapid" or "gradual" change?

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.