Education and Accomplishments
‘She had the knowledge and learning of a scholar, and all the admirable skills that noble ladies required’
The education and accomplishments expected of medieval women would have varied widely according to their social class. Female literacy was largely confined to the aristocracy and merchant classes. Although books were costly and precious, there was enough of a variety in reading matter in circulation for Robert of Gretham, in the 13th century, to use the stock phrase of advising his patroness Aline to read religious literature for moral improvement instead of romances for entertainment.
Prized feminine skills were those which could be practised and performed inside the house (embroidery and music), whereas young noblemen were trained to excel at outdoor pursuits. Women could be both the audience for readings and music, and the performers.
Texts in the French and Anglo-Norman languages were not brought to England as curiosities, but were read and understood by the medieval aristocracy as their first language. Most of the English upper class was descended from Norman families (from Normandy in modern-day France) who came over with William the Conqueror in 1066. Parts of France were ruled by the English kings until the 15th century, and fought over during the Hundred Years War. It was only during the 15th century that French was supplanted by English as the language of the court.
Clerics and administrators also used Latin, the ‘international’ language that was understood all over Europe because it was the language used by the Roman Catholic Church. Record-keeping after the Norman Conquest was often done by clergymen or people trained by clergy. Most ‘official’ documents were written in French or Latin. It was only in 1733 that it became the rule that such documents should always be written in English.
The following extracts from literary texts give some insights into women’s cultural pursuits in medieval society.
Next page: View documents