The influence of the Bible on Medieval Women’s Literacy
By Mihai Dragnea
The image of Saint Anne, who teaches Virgin Mary to read, suggests the feminine culture of the medieval Christian tradition, in which mothers have the mission to educate their girls. It is likely that this religious image has influenced the late medieval society, in which the role of mothers in early childhood education was essential. Through the biblical image of Saint Anne, who teaches the Virgin Mary to read, was born the modern perspective of inclusion of women in modern intellectual life, with the help of the literature.
In the Byzantine preaches from the 8th-10th centuries period, the Virgin Mary is described as Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom in the Greek pantheon. In the thirteenth century, the Dominican Bishop Albert the Great claimed that the Virgin Mary was a master of the seven liberal arts (grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music). In the iconographic representations of the Annunciation from the medieval period, the spindle that the Virgin Mary holds in her hand is replaced with a book. In some representations, the book is open to Isaiah, where you can read the prophecy of the birth of Jesus Christ, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel”(Isaiah 7:14). The idea that on the eve of the Annunciation, the Virgin Mary had read this text from Isaiah, was spread by the monk Nicholas Love (15th century), which translated into English the medieval work of Pseudo-Bonaventure, Meditationes Vitae Christi, written shortly before.
In the medieval society, the literacy of children took place in the monasteries. This idea comes from the Jewish society, where the literacy of kids took place in the temple. As an example we have the representation of Virgin Mary from the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Chartres (13th century). There, Virgin Mary stands in front of the teacher with the other students.
Saint Anne is represented in iconography for the first time in the year 650, on the west wall of the sanctuary of the Roman church Santa Maria Antiqua. The image of the Virgin Mary with her mother Anne, as a teacher, appears for the first time in the fourteenth century in England. Scene that we can meet in church frescoes, in the glass paintings, sculptures and in the illuminated manuscripts. We can find an overview of the two Marianic representations on the stained glass of the Italian cathedral from Orvieto (14th century). There the teachings of Anne towards Virgin Mary are held in the temple. The representations in which from the scene the book is missing are rare.
The image of Mary receiving instructions from her mother Anne, offers us the perspective of a special symbolic in medieval religious art. The German Jesuit theologian and art historian Joseph Braun believes that the main object of representation is the book, in which appears passages from the Testament. These passages refer to the incarnation of Jesus, which in some iconographic representations appears next to the Virgin Mary and Anne. In late medieval art, Saint Anne symbolizes family and female fertility.
In the fourteenth century Bedford Hours illuminated manuscript we have a miniature in which Saint Anne appears holding in her arms the Virgin Mary. In front of them, on a support, there is teaching book and on her knees in front of the book lies the Duchess of Bedford, Anne of Burgundy (1404-1432). The position of the Duchess who yields before her patron Saint Anne, suggests that Anne is the owner of the Bedford manuscript. Moreover, the manuscript was a wedding gift from the Duke of Bedford, John of Lancaster (1389-1435).
Since the fourteenth century, the medieval society has experienced an increase in literacy among the population. The medievalist Michael Clanchy believes that the parents of all social classes had to teach their offspring to read at least one verse from the Bible. The miniature from Bedford Hours manuscript is an evidence of medieval women’s literacy through the “spiritual leader” of all women, Virgin Mary.
The image of Virgin Mary literacy will be projected in the collective memory of all mothers that would make the domestic education of children one of the most important parental obligations. The fact is understandable since the woman by her leading status of the domestic space was the only one who could handle the education and schooling of children. The domestic education of children is attested in the English poem called “How the good wife taught her daughter,” present in many manuscripts of the fourteenth and fifteenth.
On the other hand, the image of Saint Anne teaching Virgin Mary to read, encouraged the systematic literacy of medieval children. This process will mark the transition from the education based on the visual image, to a literary education based on massive literacy of children in the family. Women followed the example set by Saint Anne and made the education of children at home one of their main duties.