‘Why, Margaret, they told me you were a scholar’: Renaissance Humanism and the Invention of the Irrational Woman

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Wendy Hiller and Paul Schofield as Alice More and her husband Thomas, in A Man for All Seasons (1966)

The quotation in my title, and the image above, both come from the 1966 film A Man for All Seasons, a film centred around Thomas More, one-time right-hand man of Henry VIII. More objected to the idea Henry should become head of the Church of England, resigned his post, and was beheaded on charges of treason in 1535. The play represents More as a man who thinks deeply, yet logically, a man gripped by the dilemma of how to choose between conscience and political necessity, who makes an honourable and fatal decision.

When I studied this period, as part of my A Level history course, we learned that More was a Humanist – that is, a proponent of the new style of learning sweeping across Europe during the Renaissance. In Humanism (so we were told) educated men sought to rediscover Latin and Greek texts, to think in newly rational ways, and to put the superstitions of the medieval Catholic Church behind them.

This new Age of Reason – the Renaissance, the English Reformation – is, not coincidentally, the period during which Intelligent Women suddenly break out into popular history. The very word ‘medieval’ is associated with primitive, brutal attitudes, and often – in the case Nick Clegg’s comments, for example – with restrictions of women’s rights. We’re primed to believe that medieval women weren’t educated, that Renaissance women were. Despite the best efforts of Alison Weir et al., few educated medieval women seem to be part of popular consciousness. But ask for names from just a century later and most of us can name (and probably even picture, via Holbein) women like Elizabeth I and Jane Grey, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Parr.

A Man for All Seasons exemplifies this trend with its portrayal of Thomas More’s daughter, Margaret. I’m going to quote a whole passage, because it’s just so good. The speakers are Margaret and King Henry VIII, as More and his wife welcome the king to their home and as the king meets their daughter for the first time.

HENRY (Looking her over) Why, Margaret, they told me you were a scholar.

(MARGARET is confused)

MORE Answer, Margaret.

MARGARET Among women I pass for one, Your Grace.

(NORFOLK and ALICE exchange approving glances)

HENRY Antiquone modo Latine loqueris, an Oxoniensi? [Do you speak old-fashioned Latin, or Oxford Latin?]

MARGARET Quem me docuit pater, Domine. [I speak my father’s Latin – it’s he who taught me it, sir]

HENRY Bene. Optimus est. Graecamne linguam quoque to docuit?

[Good – that’s great! And has he taught you Greek as well?]

MARGARET Graecam me docuit non pater meus sed mei patris amicus, Johannes Coletus, Sancti Pauli Decanus. In litteris Graecis tamen, note minus quam Latinis, ars magistri minuitur discipuli stultitia.

[My father didn’t teach me Greek, sir, my father’s friend did: John Colet, Dean of St. Paul’s. But it’s the same with Greek and Latin: the teacher’s skill is wasted by the student’s stupidity.]

(Her Latin is better than his; he is not altogether pleased)

HENRY Ho! (He walks away from her, talking; she begins to rise from her curtsy; MORE gently presses her down again before KING HENRY turns) Take care, Thomas: ‘too much learning is a weariness of the flesh, and there is no end to the making of books.’


I love this scene. Margaret tries so damn hard to be polite and self-effacing and to point out how inferior she is to all the men who’ve taught her … and she’s let down because she just can’t believe a man’s Latin can be so much worse than her own. This exchange sets up the tensions that run thrugh the play: we see immediately Henry’s arrogance and his insecurity, and we recognise that More, the optimist who taught his daughter Latin, is also a realist enough to know the dangers of offending the king.

Until Hilary Mantel started writing her Wolf Hall trilogy, this film (together with the play it’s based on) must have been one of the most influential representations of More. While in Mantel’s version More is a pretty unloveable character, here he’s portrayed as a gentle scholar, a man of his convictions, and an exemplary father. More’s daughter, Margaret, was (in real life as in the film) known for her erudition. She was phenomenally educated by any standards. The film works hard to persuade us that, by the standards of sixteenth-century Europe, women were not expected to be educated in the new, modern Humanist manner More educates his daughter.

This scene also represents, in microcosm, the possibilities of Humanism as the play imagines them. Margaret’s innocent expectation of Henry’s learning, and her own fluent Latin, invite us to imagine that, if only men like More had the power to shape the world that Henry VIII has, women and men would be equally free to study and learn.

This is, in my experience, a surprisingly popular view of the difference between Renaissance England and the medieval period.

It’s perhaps telling that the wiki entry on Margaret includes the rather startling (to a medievalist) claim that she was the first non-royal woman to publish a book she had translated into English”. We could quibble charitably about what the wiki editor meant by ‘publish,’ but I don’t really think this is tenable at all (and as a side note, you can buy Dame Eleanor Hull’s fifteenth-century English translation of the Psalms on Amazon at the moment). Wiki isn’t scholarly, obviously, but that’s the point: the idea of Margaret, Renaissance woman and daughter of a Humanist father, as a groundbreaking translator is one we can accept easily. It’s an idea that doesn’t originate with A Man for All Seasons, but one that’s perpetuated by it.

However, there’s another important female character in the film, and one who represents a very different kind of historical femininity. Alice More, Thomas’s wife, represents not only a different generation of women, but an entirely different historical period. She is a medieval woman, a woman whose father was not a kindly, equal-opportunities Humanist educator. Later in the play, More (with misplaced optimism) believes he’ll get to retire from Henry VIII’s court to live out his life in obscurity, and we’re faced with this exchange:

ALICE So there’s an end of you. What will you do now-sit by the fire and make goslings in the ash?

MORE Not at all, Alice, I expect I’ll write a bit. (He woos them with unhappy cheerfulness) I’ll write, I’ll read, I’ll think. I think I’ll learn to fish! I’ll play with my grandchildren-when son Roper’s done his duty. (Eagerly) Alice, shall I teach you to read?

ALICE No, by God!

I admit, this irritates me more every time I look at it. We’re required to believe that More – eager supporter of his daughter’s education in Latin and Greek – didn’t bother to teach his wife English until now. We’re required to believe that Alice – wife of a learned scholar – would reject the suggestion out of hand, just to remind everyone that women collude in their educational oppression.

But mostly, it annoys me because – as a medievalist who works a lot on the period in which Alice More would have been educated – it is just so utterly, stupidly wrong. Women like Alice More did not grow up illiterate. No, really. They didn’t. Women like Alice More grew up in a society where it was an aphorism that women taught children to read. Women like Alice More grew up in a society where women owned prayer books, dictated and read letters, and understood the family finances.

But our popular conception of the difference between the medieval period and the Renaissance isn’t set up to help us recognize this. In fact – as you might guess, since neat period boundaries tend to turn out to be over-simplifications – Humanism in England isn’t a sixteenth-century invention that began with Thomas More. You can find fifteenth-century Humanists doing their Latin and Greek and swanning off to Italy and bringing it all back home. You also get women like Christine de Pizan, who is as rigorously logical as anyone could wish.

But, what interests me more is one of the many traditions of reading and thinking that was strongly associated with women (but also practised by men). It’s interesting, because it relies on a kind of intellectual activity that we’re conditioned not to recognize as properly intellectual at all. The big trend in fifteenth-century England was a kind of meditational, imaginative reading. You were supposed to read about Christ’s life and discipline yourself to imagine it, with as much sensory detail as possible, so that you could internalise every emotion you would have felt had you been present during that time. Readers learned to imagine Christ’s experiences so strongly and completely that they became able to grasp the truth of his divine-human nature through emotional identification.

This was a demanding mode of thought, and earlier in the medieval period, it had been largely restricted to those who were educated in monasteries – monks and nuns. But in the fifteenth century, literacy levels were rising, and, increasingly, texts written in Latin were being translated into English so that larger numbers of men and women could understand them. And because many of the most accessible Latin religious texts had been written for nuns, a huge proportion of these new English translations were explicitly addressed to women: this was not a mode of reading in which women were unwelcome.

Medieval ’emotional’ and ‘imaginative’ reading requires phenomenal discipline – I’m stressing this, because in the modern world, we’re accustomed to see emotion and imagination as inferior to logic and rationality, even incompatible with reasoned argument. We are taught – not coincidentally – that women are ‘irrational‘. We are told that we are ‘unreasonable’. We are encouraged to believe that if, as feminists, we disagree with the status quo, we lack ‘analysis’.

I don’t really know how many Renissance women could read and understand Humanist texts, compared to the numbers of their medieval counterparts who were educated in a very different mode of thinking. I don’t believe (as I hope is obvious) that women are inherently better suited to ’emotional’ than to ‘logical’ thinking. But I do find it telling that, in our popular perceptions of the transition from medieval to Renaissance England, we are only encouraged to recognize educated women when their education takes the masculine form associated with Humanism: the scholarly, deferential Latin of Margaret More.

Note, and a Disclaimer:

I admit, I have absolutely no idea whether or not historical Alice More could read, or not. But Alice More the character – the representative of Good Old Medieval Wifeliness – she could.

I wrote this after reading David Rundle’s piece in History Today, titled ‘Before the Humanities, the Humanists’. I won’t dignify my piece by saying it’s a response to that, since I went off entirely on a tangent, but all the same, you should read it.

I haven’t space here to talk more about this medieval mode of reading – it is properly complicated – and I will acknowledge that it comes with a whole lot of baggage about what counts as ‘educated’ and what doesn’t. However, my sense is that there’s really not a whole lot of gendered inequality here: a medieval text urging readers to understand by imagining much more likely to call its readers uneducated because they’re not monks or nuns, than because some of them are women.


4 thoughts on “‘Why, Margaret, they told me you were a scholar’: Renaissance Humanism and the Invention of the Irrational Woman

  1. Very interesting piece–I hope you’ll write more about the “medieval mode of reading,” or, given the amount of work I’m casually asking you do, suggest some texts for my perusal.

    • Oh, sure! I’ll try to write a post about it, and include some book recs, though it may not be for a little while. I’m really glad you liked this!

  2. Pingback: Wolf Hall: Women Mired in Catholic Illiteracy, Take Two | Jeanne de Montbaston

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