Women and Renaissance Science, 
or Homebrew, Hornbooks and the Swedish Drag Queen
Fran Teague, University of Georgia


Thanks for your invitation to speak about women and science during Women's History Month 2002. My own research focuses on Englishwomen before 1700 so that's what this talk will concentrate on. There are lots of different ways to understand the phrase "Women and Renaissance Science." Let me give illustrations of three different ways and then talk about how those three are connected using the examples of homebrew, hornbooks, and the Swedish drag queen.

I.  Women and Science might refer to the ideas that early science had about women.

For example, notions about anatomy (male and female) were somewhat fanciful. Small wonder: the first serious study of human anatomy was published in 1543 (Vesalius, de Humani Corporis Fabrica), and Harvey's discovery of the circulation of the blood was published in 1628. So there were some very peculiar notions in the air: you may have heard that folks in the Renaissance thought that four humors controlled the body's health in the prevailing medical theory, called Galenic medicine. Another notion that seems odd today  is that the female body is a defective version of the male body that hasn't quite developed enough. Yet another was that all women were of a phlegmatic humor--cold and moist--so that women were by the nature of that humor more passive, less healthy, and more lecherous than men.  Another belief was that a woman who masturbated was likely to develop a penis. I could go on, but I want instead to talk about ways that the Renaissance was quite advanced about encouraging women and science.


 

Jordaine Guibelet, illustration for a book by Antoine Le Marie Evreux, Trois discours philosophiques 1603
Taken from the National Library of Medicine website 
Two midwives assist a delivery (from a 1513 book by Eucharius Roeslin, d.1526)
Once again the image is from the National Library of Medicine website .

People in the Renaissance may not have known much about the anatomy of women, but people in the Renaissance did know quite a lot about the activities of women, such processes as brewing, creating herbal remedies, and caring for the ill. In these areas women played a major role as housewives, herbalists, and midwives. But that role has gone largely undocumented: we know women were the people who brewed the home's remedies as well as its beer and who did almost all nursing, caring for their families and for one another during pregnancy. We also know that as medicine became "professionalized" in the 18th century, women came under attack as less good than male practitioners. But we have relatively little information about who those women were. Some names survive: Jane Sharp, Mary Trye, and Elizabeth Cellier are all midwives who ventured into print. Elizabeth Knevet Clinton wrote a book on breast feeding. Books that detailed botanical information with illustrations were produced by women like Maria Sybilla Merian.
 

Maria Sibylla Merian was born in Frankfurt in 1647 and died in 1717. She made a large number of paintings of plants and insects, published in 1705 as Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium.
Her comments on this plate focus on the banana: ‘Banana is what they call this fruit in America, and they serve as apples and have a pleasant flavour, like the apples in Holland, they taste good, cooked as well as uncooked; when they are unripe they are light green, the ripe ones are lemon yellow both inside and outside [...].’ Recently the US Postal service featured some of Merian's botanical drawings on stamps.
I found this illustration through Mary Ann Sullivan's wonderful art history site on women artists by looking under Merian.

Further Reading
If you'd like to learn more about what science thought of women and their activities, you can read Sara Mendelson and Patricia Crawford's Women in Early Modern England (Oxford: OUP, 1998) or Ian Maclean's The Renaissance Notion of Women (Cambridge: University Press, 1980). Best of all, in the University of Georgia library you can find copies of  many of the books written by women  before 1700. Just search on the author's name (e.g., Jane Sharp or Mary Trye) until you find the call number (and reel number for microfilm). Then head to the library, and you can see for yourself what a woman wrote about science many centuries ago.

Women and Science might mean what women learned about science.


Engraving of printing press by Jost Amman in Eygentliche Beschreibung  Aller Stände auff Erden  (Frankfurt, 1568). Image from the the Cary Graphic Arts Library.)
One thing that makes the Renaissance such an exciting period to study is the radical changes in education from earlier days. The grammar schools were not simple primary schools, but institutions that provided a child with a thorough classical education, preparing him for the university or a profession. Thanks to Gutenberg's printing press, it was possible in the 16th and 17th centuries for grammar schools to have books. The impact of printing presses was phenomenal: Europeans were able to preserve their knowledge and circulate it to others easily. And after the first printing press arrived in England in 1485, we can certainly see the invention's effect on the culture at large: almost exactly one century later the richest period of English literature commenced with such writers as Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, John Donne, to say nothing of the King James Bible re-shaping the nature of English literature.

There's just one problem: girls didn't go to grammar school because they were  . . . well, girls.

How were women educated in the Renaissance? Arrangements for educating women were ad hoc at best. Literacy rates for women remained low in the seventeenth century, and few women received formal education. Scholars disagree about what sort of education women had, but  do agree about the results:

Everywhere [in Europe and America] the male literacy rate is higher than the female, with a gap between the two as high as 25 or 30 percent. Obviously women had less of a role to play in a world of the written word. But the figures do not give an accurate idea of the differences in reading ability. In early modern societies learning to read was long considered part of a girl's education; learning to write was not, for writing was held to be a useless and dangerous skill for women to acquire.  (Roger Chartier's The History of Private Life 115)
Precisely because the ability to write was considered threatening by some and because educational practices were closely linked to religious practices, the evidence that remains must be treated cautiously: some women wanted to mislead the world about how well educated they were. Generally speaking, however, girls might be taught either at dame schools (and the few grammar schools open to them), or they might work with individual tutors if their families were well-to-do. A dame school was something like a day care center. The woman running it taught children letters and numbers, but not much more.
One reason for the limited curriculum in a dame school is that the teacher and her pupils would not use books, but rather a device called a hornbook.  The hornbook is paper on a board that has been covered with a piece of transparent horn. Those girls fortunate enough to have any education at a dame school knew the material on the hornbook, but little more. In the case of these two examples, the children also learned a prayer or even a bit of vocabulary.

What seems oddest of all to us is that girls (and sometimes boys) sometimes were taught to read, but not to write. The rationale was that girls needed to be able to read their Bible for the good of their souls, but had no need of writing because too much literacy would make them proud and endanger their souls. In practical terms the legal position of women (who were considered to be the property of a father or a husband) meant that they had no need to write since they could not easily own land, vote, and so forth. While it's hard to be certain about the precise figures, one leading historian estimates that 90% of all seventeenth-century women were illiterate, while 40% of all seventeenth-century men were as well.
Nicholaes Maes, Old Woman Dozing (1656, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels)
An old woman has fallen asleep while reading. Using pictorial language which would have been immediately understood by a 17th century Calvinist, the artist condemns the woman because she is neglecting her Bible. An hourglass in which time is passing props up the heavy book: she is wasting time. On the corner of the red cloth-covered table, a lace cushion, with light falling onto it, draws our eye. This symbol of domestic industry has been pushed aside by the woman, perhaps because she is too proud, perhaps too lazy. This image and analysis is from The WebGallery of Art.

As always seems to happen, there were exceptions, women who cared passionately about learning and who obtained an education despite incredible obstacles. My favorite learned lady is Bathsua Makin (her given name is a variant of Bathsheba) who was a schoolmaster's daughter. She knew about nine languages (including Hebrew and Syriac); worked out an original shorthand system with her father; and published a book of Latin, Greek, French, and Hebrew poetry when she was just 16 years old . (When a copy of her book of poetry was presented to James I, King of England as a marvel, he looked at it and asked, "But can she spin?") Later she worked as a teacher, established her own school for girls, and wrote a 1673 essay urging that women be educated, the first such work by an English woman.
My biography of Makin features this portrait on the cover. The Latin around the border lets us know what she was most proud of, teaching Princess Elizabeth Stuart such languages as Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Other pupils included the sons and daughters of the Countess of Huntington. Makin also was known for her medicinal skills (especially in treating heart problems).

I particularly like Makin because she was a bit of a smart aleck. Here is an example of what I mean from her essay on educating women:

Yet even in Makin's school little attention was given to science. She promised to teach languages, music, household skills, but she said that only "Those that will allow longer time [i.e., long-term pupils] may attain some general knowledge in astronomy, geography, but especially in arithemetic and history." This neglect seems especially odd since Makin herself was avid for news about science. Her brother-in-law was the mathematician John Pell, and she once sent him this letter
Most learned Brother,
     I pray you send me a few lines of the position of the late Comet, out of the 3 papers you shewed me, that were sent to you from beyond the sea, and your owne observation if you please; if it shalbe too much trouble for you to transcribe out of those papers, if you send them to me, I will write it out and returne your papers very safe.
     Your loving sister Bathsua Makin.
I send you some raisons which are the best breakfast you can eat, if you spit out the stones.
Moreover her work as a healer was well-known: she had received Sir Walter Raleigh's chemical and alchemical recipes from his widow, for example, and was a friend to several prominent members of the Royal College of Physicians. For a woman as learned as Makin, science was not learned in school but in practice: through work with an older practitioner who could train the student how to do things with the natural world. Upper-class men might study natural science at the university, but such an education was closed to women and to many men who found their education in the world--and people--around them.

Further reading: You can read copies of  many of the books written by women  before 1700 in the University of Georgia library and the Crawford and Mendelsohn history is also helpful. For information about Bathsua Makin's life, I've published a biography, Bathsua Makin, Woman of Learning (Lewisburg: Bucknell, 1998). A good general study is  David Cressy, Education in Tudor and Stuart England (N.Y.: St. Martin's P, 1975). An older work, but an excellent one is Dorothy Gardiner,  English Girlhood at School: A Study of Women's Education through Twelve Centuries (London: Oxford U P, 1929). Finally, here's a good list of links to websites about women's education, although almost none are from the Renaissance period.


Women and Science might mean the scientific investigations that women carried out.

Despite the obstacle of little formal education and the social attitutude that women were inferior, some women did carry out scientific investigations. To be sure, when we think of imprtant Renaissance scientists, the list is all male. Nevertheless, women played a role as well

Some were assistants to scientists in their families. They helped gather data and often helped analyse it as well. Examples would be Tycho Brahe's sister Sophia or Robert Boyle's sister, Katherine Boyle Jones, Lady Ranelagh. Note that in both of these cases the helper is a sister, but wives and daughters might also assist. And occasionally the assistant was an employee. For example, when Johannes Kepler, following Tycho Brahe's lead, was working in astronomy, he employed Marie Cunitz to translate and simplify his works.
 

Tycho and Sophie Brahe, from Johan Runeberg's website on Brahe. See also this site
Another portrait of Sophie. 

One can also consider the sort of personal support that a scientist's wife or children might offer. A case in point would be Galileo and his daughter, Sister Maria Celeste, whose biography has been recently published by Dava Sobel.
 

Galileo's daughter, Sister
Maria Celeste Galilei

Portrait of Galileo by Tintoretto, 
from the Galileo webpage.

One of Galileo's patrons, Christine of Lorraine

Rene Descartes, image taken from this site. and one of his patrons, Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle.


Peter van Schuppen's engraving of Cavendish, the frontispiece to her Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1655). The Warder Collection. From the W W Norton site

But support might come from the prominent women of the day. Such patronage (matronage?) supported Rene Descartes for instance, who received correspondence and funds from Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle and Queen Christina Wasa of Sweden. Moreover both Margaret Cavendish and Queen Christina wished to take active roles: they both studied the sciences and in their letters to and from Descartes, he instructed them in mathematics. Newcastle proposed an atomic theory of matter and was the first woman to attend a Royal Society meeting. Queen Christina, after ending the 100 years war, abdicated the Swedish throne when she converted to Roman Catholicism. She began cross-dressing at that point and ran her own alchemical laboratory.
 
 
Two portraits of Queen Christina of Sweden. The one to the left is a portrait by Sebastien Bourdon of Christina around age of 27. The one below shows Christina at the age of 41, after abdicating the throne and turning to cross-dressing.

Finally, one might consider Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, mathematician and musician. She was the first woman ever to receive a PhD, taking her degree from the University of Padua in 1678. Her studies in mathematics and musical theory certainly combine the sciences and the arts in an impressive fashion.
 

  
The first woman to receive a doctorate, Elena Piscopia.  


Further reading: There's a terrific site about women in science at the University of Alabama, and Agnes Scott has a fine site about the achievements of women as well. These sites give a splendid set of resources for further investigation. Finally, Deborah Taylor-Pearce has an excellent essay on the Growth of Science and how women were involved at the Renaissance Women Online website.

Conclusions