Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Anna Maria van Schurman--One More "Tenth Muse"!!

Anna Maria van Schurman (born 5 November 1607)


Born in Cologne, the daughter of Frederik van Schurman and Eva von Harff, who had fled from Antwerp to avoid increasing conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, Anna Maria van Schurman was a prodigy. She was widely recognized and admired for her skill in languages (she reputedly knew fourteen, including Arabic and Syriac), philosophy, poetry, music, and painting.

Anna Maria van Schurman, 1649,
portrait by Jan Lievens
And, of course, she became known as "the Tenth Muse"! How many women have I posted about this year who have been awarded that "praise"! I know it's meant as high praise, but, really--any and every highly regarded and accomplished woman becomes the "Tenth Muse."*

Anyway, after about five years, the family returned to the Netherlands, settling in Utrecht, where Anna Maria would spend the better part of her life. She was sent briefly to a local French school, but after two months returned home, where she was tutored along with her brothers, the children's education supervised and directed by their father.

By 1620 and still in her early teens, she was recognized by the Dutch artist, poet, and translator Anna Roemers Visscher, who praised Schurman's knowledge of the classical languages, her drawing, and her musical accomplishments as a singer and as a performer--in particular, she excelled at the harpsichord and lute.

(By the way, Anna Roemers Visscher was herself described as a muse and a second Sappho, her sister Maria Tesselschade Visscher described as, you guessed it, "the Tenth Muse." See what I mean?)

By the 1630s, Schurman was corresponding with a number of scholars, including André Rivet, a French Huguenot theologian at the University of Leyden, and the Dutch theologian Gisbertus Voetius, rector of the University of Utrecht.

It was in her correspondence with Rivet that Schurman took up the question of women's education, specifically the subject of “whether the study of letters is fitting for a Christian woman,” the topic of a brief dissertation she wrote for him in 1632. While she defends women's capacity for education, Anna Maria van Schurman is more cautious about women and certainly never argues for their equality. 

Schurman knew the work of both Marie le Jars de Gournay and Lucrezia Marinella, for example, but she disapproved of both of them. In her correspondence with Rivet on the subject of women’s education, she denies the arguments of those who have made the “invidious and groundless assertion of the preeminence” of women. Schurman says that her “maidenly modesty” and “innate shyness” have been troubled by Marinella’s work, and while she “can by no means disapprove of the little dissertation of the most noble Gournay,” neither does she entirely approve of it. 

The virtues of women “ought to be proved rightly,” Schurman asserts, but instead of undertaking the proof herself, she writes that she “very much desire[s] that role be handed over” to Rivet, “a sublime herald of the virtues.” Her treatise on the subject, Num feminæ Christianæ conveniat stadium litterarum? (Whether a Christian Woman Should Be Educated) is, as editor Joyce Irwin observes, "purely academic, a formal exercise in logic": "Nowhere does she suggest changes in the power structure of political or religious institutions."

And the question of whether women "ought" to be educated was further qualified--only women who had private means ("those women who enjoy wealth as their lot in life") and women who were unmarried and thus had no children to care for--the "study of letters" is "appropriate" for a woman who needs to follow a pastime at home." 

Anna Maria van Schurman's association with Voetius dates to 1636, when he enabled her to attend lectures at the University of Utrecht. It is frequently claimed online that Schurman was the first female student at the university, which is not quite the case at all--she could attend some lectures, sitting in a special niche that concealed her from male students, but she was never formally enrolled as a student. 

By this point, too, René Descartes came to know of Schurman, and she was impressed by his philosophy. In 1640, Descartes visited Schurman in Utrecht, but was disappointed by the turn in her thinking. "This Voetius has blighted Miss Schurman," Descartes wrote, "for she did have an eminent talent for verse, painting and other pleasures. But in the past five or six years he has gained complete mastery over her. She is occupied entirely with theological deliberation, which has caused her to lose contact with all cultured society."

By the 1650s, Schurman withdrew from her intellectual pursuits--whether from "deepening piety" or "because family obligations" became more pressing. She dedicated twenty years to caring for two elderly, blind aunts and then, after their deaths, she joined a religious community in Friesland, where she died in May of 1678.

Anna Maria van Schurman's correspondence with André Rivet, including her "logical dissertation" on women's education, was published in Paris in 1638 as Amica Dissertatio inter Annam Mariam Schurmanniam et Andr. Rivetum de capacitate ingenii muliebris ad scientia, though she would claim this was published without her consent.

Three years later, in 1641, she published Dissertatio de ingenii Muliebris ad Doctrinam et meliores Litteras aptitudine in Leyden (later translated and published in English as The Learned Maid or, Whether a Maid may be a Scholar. Her collected works, including letters and poems, Opuscula Hebraea, Graeca, Latina, Gallica, prosaica et metrica, was published in 1648.

Her autobiography, defending her choice to follow the Labadie religious sect, Eukleria seu Meliores Partis Electio (Eucleria, or Choosing the Better Part), was published in 1673.

In addition to her familiarity with the work of Gournay and Marinella, she corresponded with Gournay as well as with another women we have met, Bathsua Makin. She was also visited in Utrecht by Queen Christina of Sweden

For an excellent introductory essay by Marianne Alenius, click here. Joyce Irwin's edition of Schurman's works is Anna Maria van Schurman: Whether a Christian Woman Should Be Educated and Other Writings from Her Intellectual Circle.

And here's the only mention of Anna Maria van Schurman in my favorite love-to-hate resource, the Encyclopedia Britannica (it comes from an entry on glassmaking!): "engraving was practiced there [Venice] widely by talented amateurs in the 17th century, among them Humanists such as Maria Tesselschade Roemers Visscher, her even more famous sister Anna Roemers Visscher and Anna Maria van Schurman. The latter two decorated their glasses with flowers and insects drawn with a gossamer touch, often accompanied by epigrams in Latin or Greek capitals. . . ." Sheesh!!!

*You can access my posts about various women called the "Tenth Muse" by clicking the label, below.