Women, Education, and the Whitewashing of History

St Anne teaching the Virgin to read. Stained glass window at All Saints' Church, North Gate, York.

St Anne teaching the Virgin to read. Stained glass window at All Saints’ Church, North Gate, York.

I’ve been silent for an unprecedented five days on this blog – the reason is, I’ve just taken my viva examination, the final stage in my PhD. Mine was actually a lovely experience – which was unexpected as you’re put in a room with two academics who’re experts in your subject, and they grill you on your thesis while you justify what you wrote. It was nerve-wracking, because my university has a policy of making you do interdisciplinary work, and so I couldn’t claim to be an expert on every single area I discussed. In fact, my external examiner was a Professor of palaeography, and this was the aspect of my thesis I had found most challenging (as well as exciting). But he and my internal examiner were so kind that it felt very friendly, and there was a lovely moment when one of my examiners told me how she’d been working at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge when they bought the beautiful and fascinating Macclesfield Psalter. Her face just lit up remembering it.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been doing over the last few days. And seeing my examiners get so excited about medieval books reminded me of one of the early reasons I got so interested in what I’m researching now, about social perceptions of women in medieval England.

When I’d recently begun my PhD, I was trying to find out how medieval children learned to read. I came across this (to me, anyway) amazing statement in a book on medieval education, quoting a thirteenth-century writer who confidently stated:

“woman teacheth child on book”

This idea – that, by default, it was women who taught children to learn from their books – was a huge surprise. Since I began my research, I’ve come across countless people who said to me: ‘but weren’t medieval women illiterate?’ It’s come to make me really sad that this is an area of women’s history that is so completely hidden from us. We are often taught about medieval women as downtrodden, oppressed and suffering people leading fundamentally simpler and more brutal lives than ours. But the role of mothers in the phenomenally difficult task of teaching children to read was crucial.  

The image at the top of this post shows St. Anne – the mother of the Virgin Mary, imagined here as a medieval woman leaning over her young daughter – as she teaches the child to sound out her letters. The text in the book the young Virgin Mary holds open is written in a legible medieval script – it’s actually from one of the penitential psalms in the Book of Hours. Strange as it may seem to us, this is the book from which children usually learned to read. Of course, the prayers were difficult. They were written in Latin, which little children did not understand. So, instead of sounding out stories about Biff, Chip and Kipper, medieval children learned painstakingly to sound out ‘Pater noster, qui es in caelis …’ (Our father, which are in heaven). The image I’ve put below is very small, but if you follow this link, you will find a version you can expand.

Medieval Alphabet and 'Pater Noster'. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Rawl. liturg. e. 40, f. 40r

Medieval Alphabet and ‘Pater Noster’. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Rawl. liturg. e. 40, f. 40r

As you can imagine, teaching a small child to sound out the letters of a language he or she didn’t understand was a hard task. But women regularly did this. Women taught their children this hugely important skill – and may sometimes have been more literate than their husbands, since the task of praying for the family using a book was often seen as a woman’s job.

I was stunned, and pleased, to find that in medieval England, the beautiful illuminated books we see in exhibitions at the British Library or the Bodleian in Oxford often belonged to women – perhaps even more than to men. I realized that medieval women were often educated and intelligent, teachers to the next generation.

So why is it that this isn’t a a matter of general knowledge? Why do we picture medieval women as illiterate, or less educated than their husbands? Of course, one issue is class: the women my medieval author was talking about when he said ‘women teacheth child on book’ were aristocrats, or rich gentry. They weren’t ordinary women. And ordinary women, and men, seldom learned to read.

But I still think there’s a disturbing issue here. Often, we’re taught history that has been whitewashed. We know to expect that the nasty bits may be omitted, that there may not be much concentration on the slave trade in England. Michael Gove, in his infinite wisdom, would like schools to teach primarily British perspectives on history, as if Europe had never had much to do with anything. But where women’s history is concerned, this whitewashing is more insidious and more depressing. We’re not taught about women as teachers and readers in medieval England, because the image of a poor, oppressed medieval woman makes modern oppression seem like freedom.

Of course, in many ways, it is (comparative) freedom. I’m hugely glad I was born in the late twentieth and not the late thirteenth century. But it’s not perfect. When we forget about the educated women of the past – not just the exceptional names, but the educated women who were doing something utterly commonplace – we distort both history and modern misogyny. When we are not told that medieval women could be literate, educated, and solvent, we are more ready to believe the myth that huge advances have been made in women’s rights since their time, and that little more needs to be done.


At the moment, the topic of women – or girls – in education crops up in the papers pretty often. Glosswatch wrote a brilliant piece a while ago about the myths that are circulated on the subject of girls’ achievements in education. I recommend it.

6 thoughts on “Women, Education, and the Whitewashing of History

  1. My congratulations. You are very brave. And your examinators too;) Very good topic and useful for me. Now I work with the question of the women`s images in the tsar`s performaces 16-17 centuries. And the answer is not quite unambiguous;)

  2. There are some lovely 15th century wills of businesses being left to the widow (a brazer in Suffolk was one) – evidence not only of women’s literacy but accounting skills, too…

  3. I’d be interested to see the Suffolk example, that sounds really interesting. I love wills as evidence for women’s use of books, but hadn’t thought to check specificially for businesses left to women. Thank you!

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