For someone who’s become accustomed to deciphering handwritten squiggles and entering metadata for hours on end – hard on the eyes, but not too hard on the brain – participating last month in the intensive one-week summer course « Vertus, savoirs et religion : parcours intellectuels de femmes dans les espaces confessionnels à l’âge moderne » at the Institut d’Histoire de la Réformation, Université de Genève was a welcome shock.
Ioanna Kyvernitou and I went together. We were in for a challenge and a treat. Not only were the readings and lectures in French, they were crammed full of big ideas. If some of the authors we read were to pitch their main points to each other in contemporary English, it might go something like this:
Marie de Gournay: Let me demonstrate, through countless examples, that women throughout the ages have achieved the greatest heights of wisdom. Women are still capable of great things – when not squashed by unjust social customs imposed by (jealous? or only stupid?) men. Now please stop talking down to us, and give us a chance.
François Poulain de la Barre: I agree wholeheartedly, madam. Furthermore, the soul is sexless, so men and women are essentially equal.
André Rivet: That’s all very well, but the women cited are exceptional. Surely not all women need or even want to be so educated (or so forward). That would be of no use to society (especially if they turn out like Gournay). What’s the point of higher learning for women, since they’re never called on to use it? Don’t they have better, more useful things to do?
Anna Maria van Schurman: With all due respect, is the value of education purely utilitarian? May it not be pursued for the sheer joy of learning, and as a means of discovering truth and deepening devotion? Surely at least leisured single women (without families to look after, and with servants to do the chores) should be allowed to turn their minds to higher things. You don’t object to my level of learning, and you see it hasn’t diminished my faith. I’m only trying to be fair to other women like me.
Dorothy Moore: Yes, naturally, but could we take it further, please? Aren’t all women (regardless of class and marital status) called by God to serve the greater good, as men are – just in different ways? If so, we need to figure out the particular ways we can contribute to the public good, and the kind of education that will fit us for the job. It’s fine for education to be utilitarian if we’re allowed to use it.
Madeleine de Scudéry: Pardon me for interrupting – Rivet, what was that you wrote about Jeanne d’Arc not necessarily being chaste? You brute! She’s our national heroine! Van Schurman, surely you don’t agree with him?
Now if you imagine this conversation continuing, with several more participants, over a couple hundred pages of seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century French, with a bit of Latin, Greek, and English thrown in, you get the gist. The ideas put forward in the course readings were complex and often controversial, which both sparked and rewarded in-depth discussion.
This course picked up on an important development bringing the study of women’s writing and history of ideas together: namely, the growing recognition that early modern women’s involvement in the public intellectual sphere was not so limited as we may have imagined. Several of the most prominent women in the republic of letters are now beginning to regain their reputations, thanks to Carol Pal’s Republic of Women (CUP, 2012) and the groundbreaking work of a number of specialists on particular early modern female thinkers, including Marie de Gournay, Anna Maria van Schurman, Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, Bathsua Makin, Lady Ranelagh, Dorothy Moore, Marie du Moulin, and Mary Astell, amongst others. (In related news, Anne Larsen’s monograph Anna Maria van Schurman, ‘The Star of Utrecht’ has just been published by Routledge – check it out!) The professors who designed and taught the summer course are themselves specialists on early modern women’s theological writings: Maria-Cristina Pitassi on Geneva’s own Marie Hubert and Daniela Solfaroli Camillocci on Marie Dentière.
To conclude: the course was extremely stimulating and (dare I say) useful, as the readings made me realise that Moore’s theological correspondence with Rivet responds to wider debates and in particular to his previous correspondence with van Schurman – more on which, anon. For now I’ll just say that although I’m sure he had the best of intentions, I’m really, really glad my own education and career path don’t depend on Rivet’s approval!