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The Effects Of Catholicism On The Education Of Women In Renaissance Italy

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The effects of Catholicism on the education of women in Renaissance Italy

By Lenia Constantinou

According to Paul Grendler, the conservative, clerical pedagogical theorist Silvio Antoniano (1540-1603) reflected on women's educational status in Renaissance Italy in one of his written works, claiming that "Ð'...a girl (should not) learn Ð''pleading and writing poetry'; the vain sex must not reach too highÐ'...A girl should attend to sewing, cooking, and other female activities, leaving to men what was theirs". Apparently, this was the common-held view concerning women's education during that time. Although women were actually encouraged to literacy, their subservient social role as wives and mothers could not allow them to learn as much as men did (Grendler, 1989).

Women could not have possibly been employed or held a public office. Any attainable employment did not involve independent thought; matters concerning the ruling and well-being of society were left to men (Grendler, 1995). Therefore, they were encouraged to receive the kind of education that would prove useful for their primarily domestic role. It was not enough, therefore, for them to learn how to read and write; they had to hammer their knowledge into a matrix of virtue and piety. The development and praise of literacy, the advances in printing and consequently the widespread introduction of books to the public and finally the Counter-Reformation, were factors that influenced the development of female education (Grendler, 1989). What I would like to argue in my paper is that Catholicism acted as a medium for the development of the literacy of women in Renaissance Italy.

Within the Catholic church arose the need to draw people back to conservative Catholic traditions. This was, on a certain level, a response to the Protestant Reformation and to less conservative Humanist ideals that were spreading throughout Italy. After the Council of Trent, a lot of emphasis was placed on the development of Christian virtues within individuals. What better way to achieve this than indoctrination? The knowledge of religious texts and rituals as well as the adoption of monastic virtues began to be seen as imperative. Women were granted educational privileges, primarily so that they could read religious texts. Convent education for young girls became popular amidst upper and middle class families (Strocchia, 1999). The Schools of the Christian Doctrine also served as a means towards acquiring literacy. Most importantly though, these catechical schools granted educational privileges to lower-class children, who were generally excluded from the kind of education that more well off people had access to (Grendler, 1995).

Thus, we see that in a sense, Catholicism acted as a catalyst in the development of female education. Paradoxically enough though, at the same time, it limited the possible level of knowledge they could attain. The thought of the supposedly foolish, sinful female sex breaking the bonds of ignorance made many people fear the possibility of women reading "forbidden" books. Dante's "La vita nuova", the Petrarchan sonnets and the "Decameron" are a few examples of books that were considered lasciviously dangerous and kept off-limits (Grendler, 1989). Indeed, women could be educated, yet within a certain framework. Their level of knowledge only went up to a point, in order to make sure they grew up to be exemplary, pious, Christian housewives.

In this paper I will discuss the popular views concerning women's nature and status in society and how this affected their education. I will mention what women learned and how; what kinds of institutions were accessible to what types of women. Men's education will be briefly mentioned in places. My main concern though, is not education in general. Through this paper I shall attempt to explain how Catholicism made it easier for women to acquire an education, but at the same time present the restrictions it imposed upon them.

Contemporary views on women and education: what women were encouraged to learn

Many people in the Early Renaissance did not consider education a necessity for women. Some even considered it to be bad, since they maintained the belief that knowledge led to the loss of chastity. There were certain figures in Renaissance Italy, however, like Leonardo Bruni and Ludovico Dolce, both of whom were authors, who encouraged the education of women and even went so far as to say that they should take lessons that were part of the Latin curriculum Ð'- something almost completely restricted to men. Yet, they argued that rhetoric, for example, which was an important part of the Latin education men received, was not appropriate for women. Since they could not be employed or hold a civic office, but were restricted to a household lifestyle, it was pointless for them to have a grammatical education, the practicalities of which, when applied, did not align with a female lifestyle (Grendler, 1989).

Women did not need to learn as much as men did. Only the ones that belonged to the ruling class could justify the pursuit of a grammatical education. Upper and middle class girls were also encouraged to be literate. If not, then they would be thought of as "rustic" and of bad breeding. Parents with such a social status, wanted their daughters to learn, mostly so that they would be considered better "marriage material". A finer education was equivalent to a bigger dowry. Due to their wealth, girls of such social status had better means towards learning than other lower-class girls.

In fact, there was a hierarchy of education in the female population of Italy. Well-bred women of rich families had to know how to read and write, do arithmetic, and possibly have some knowledge of Latin. Middle class women were still encouraged to obtain reading and writing skills but specialized knowledge was not necessary for them. Finally, peasant women only needed to know how to read and recite prayers (Grendler, 1989). It seems that the wealth a woman was born into was directly proportional to the level of her education.

Nevertheless, women's education varied significantly from men's. Since they were considered to be naturally vain, foolish and prone to sin, it was important that any education they received should place emphasis on morality and virtue. They were taught to be obedient, silent, steadfast and hard working (Strocchia, 1999).

Men who had the means to do so received a grammatical education. Such an education included Latin, History, Philosophy, Logic, Mathematics, Poetry, Rhetoric and usually Greek. Its well-rounded nature was praised exceedingly because it

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