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.
|Jordaine Guibelet, illustration
for a book by Antoine Le Marie Evreux,
Trois discours philosophiques
Taken from the National Library of Medicine website
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.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)
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.
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:
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.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.
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,
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
list of links to websites about women's education, although almost
none are from the Renaissance period.
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.
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.