Anna Maria van Schurman

The other day my husband brought home Whether a Christian Woman Should be Educated and Other Writings from her Intellectual Circle by Anna Maria van Schurman [1607-1678]. It’s a neat book, but I couldn’t help thinking as I read it that I’m glad I don’t have to meet her till heavenly glory.

van Schurman was one of those women who, by no fault of their own intelligence, make everyone around them feel stupid. When still a young girl, she asked her father to get rid of her tutors; her father made her promise to study hard without them, and did as Anna asked. They must have been holding her back, because after this, she excelled in every area of study to which she applied herself. She was well-known during her life throughout Europe for her calligraphy, poetry, paper cuttings, sense of style, embroidery, drawing, painting (especially portraits), singing, harpsicord and lute playing. She knew Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Chaldean, Arabic, Syriac, and wrote an Ethiopic grammar. In addition, she carried on correspondences with Europe’s leading intellects, such as Descartes, who liked to bounce ideas off of her. Not exactly the kind of woman you would be comfortable inviting over for a playdate. But I digress.

The book starts with the editors’ introduction to the series, and is everything you’d expect from a bunch of women’s historians at the University of Chicago: feminist, postmodern, revisionist historiographical approach to some really good stuff. If you’re buying the book, just skip this part.

The intro to the book isn’t much better in terms of its spin on facts, but the little biography of van Schurman is worth a ponder. Two aspects of her life particularly caught my attention. The first was her parents’ devotion to their children’s education (including theology). The father even moved the entire family at one point so that one of his sons could engage in further study. It seems that no expense and no pains were spared to prepare the van Schurman children for life and service in their culture. The other aspect of Anna’s life which stuck out was her reaction to the increasing worldliness of Dutch culture at the time. When her family were all either dead or far away, Anna reacted to these issues by swinging into a mystical pietism and joining a sect which shared her concerns. Apparently, when an intensely intelligent, spiritual woman sees the problems with her culture and has no theologically solid person with whom she is close, she is in danger of running to those who share her concerns, regardless of their orthodoxy.

The second part of the book is van Schurmans’ work on whether a Christian woman should be educated. Despite the 17th century, formal rationalist style (“Omitting the major [objection], we respond to the minor that there is ambiguity in the terms, first in the term ‘vocation’…”), it was helpful to read. The arguments which van Schurman counters in arguing for educated womanhood are still around in some (dare I say homeschooling?) circles; her rebuttals are still relevant. They are also far from feminist. The reasons she gives for educating women sound downright Presbyterian: essentially, to glorify God (which includes blessing His church) and to enjoy Him forever.

Following this is a collection of letters discussing women’s role and education between van Schurman and prominent figures of her day, including some princesses. They demonstrate van Schurman’s incredible knowledge of history, philosophy, theology and languages.

A brief, spiritual autobiography–“Eukleria”–is very revealing, and answers and raises all sorts of interesting questions about van Schurman’s piety, done without the postmodern comments which the editors threw into their version. It does, however have van Schurman’s somewhat strange pietistic bent, written as a “defense of [her] orthodoxy” in opposition to “the dark missiles of calumny”. These “dark missiles” were coming from Reformed Protestants questioning her theological orthodoxy, as in her later years she became more involved in a personality cult, even moving into the leader’s home, living on the ground floor with some other women, not caring about the rumors which naturally circulated at this living arrangement. Evidence of her intellectual prowess shines through even here – among other things, we learn that when she was eleven years old, Seneca was a favourite author.

Included in the back of the volume is Herman Voetius’ Concerning Women. It’s a fascinating study of the “natural, secular, political, spiritual and ecclesiastical status and condition of women”. Using Scripture and reason, Voetius answers many questions, including whether a woman can legitimately wield political power (sometimes), whether women ought to be externally distinguished from men (yes), and whether women are monsters (no). Meant seriously at the time, many of Voetius’ arguments are entertaining, while others remain helpful.

If you are interested in 17th century history, the intellectual history of the Netherlands, the history of women, or just curious about a remarkable, sometimes misguided saint, the book is worth a read. Less than 150 pages, it is packed with facts, ideas, arguments, and an array of formidable personalities. As a bonus, it has a lovely cover with one of van Schurman’s self-portraits in the background – femininity without the frills.