Stoa Consortium

Stoa Consortium

1.7.1. Introduction to Abbatis et eruditae


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This dialogue, usually known in English as The Abbot and the Learned Lady,89 first appeared in the 1524 edition of the Colloquia familiaria. It presents a lively debate between an abbot who is more drawn to the pleasures of sleep, money and dinner parties than to intellectual endeavor, and an educated matron who tries in vain to convince him that wisdom gained from study contributes more to one's quality of life than do earthly, hedonistic pursuits.

The conversation between Antronius and Magdalia addresses many issues we find in other dialogues in the present collection: Erasmus' criticism of clerics—so dominant a theme in Virgo μισόγαμος and in the exchange between Aegidius and Leonardus—is evident in the ridiculous character of Antronius; like Catharina in Virgo μισόγαμος, Magdalia is a strong, spirited, educated woman who more than holds her own in defending her beliefs to her skeptical interlocutor. For this discussion, however, we will examine this dialogue in conjunction with Monitoria paedagogica, because of the insight it provides into Erasmus' views on the education of women.

The lady herself, Magdalia, is a paragon of learning: She is eager to improve her mind; she is able to debate the importance of education, and how it is wisdom that separates humans from animals; she defends her love of books to the abbot who believes instead that fusus et colus sunt arma muliebria; and she prefers Latin and Greek authors to vernacular ones, ut quotidie confabule(tur) cum tot auctoribus tam facundis, tam eruditis, tam sapientibus, tam fidis consultoribus.

In fact, in his article "Erasmus and the Education of Women," J. K. Sowards points to this dialogue to illustrate that "Erasmus was genuinely impressed with genuinely learned women."90 He discusses at length a few of the women whose learning Erasmus respected, particularly those the character Magdalia mentions by name in this dialogue. When Antronius grumbles that women are not cut out for intellectual pursuits (...nec literae [conveniunt] mulieri), Magdalia informs him that, on the contrary, the ranks of educated women are growing: Sunt in Hispania , sunt in Italia adprime nobiles, quae cum quovis viro queant contendere: sunt in Anglia Moricae, sunt in Germania Bilibaldicae et Blaurericae91

Although the depiction of Magdalia is quite sympathetic, and it is clear from this dialogue that Erasmus favors the education of girls as well as boys, it would be a mistake to conclude that he considered boys and girls equal, or that he thought that equal care should be given to their respective academic preparation. In fact, the theories on education he develops in such works as De civilitate morum puerilium, De pueris statim ac liberaliter instituendis, De recta latini graecique sermonis pronuntiatione dialogus, and De conscribendis epistolis, are all concerned specifically with the education of boys. As J. K. Sowards notes, the education of girls and women is not even mentioned.92

There is agreement among scholars that this difference in moment and approach to the education of boys and girls can be explained in light of Erasmus' (and by extension the humanists') views on the purpose of education.93 Whereas Erasmus believed that boys were "the seed-beds from which will appear senators, magistrates, doctors, abbots, bishops, popes and emperors,"94 and that the purpose of education was to prepare them for their ultimate responsibilities to society, 95 his conception of women—regardless of their level of education—never went beyond their traditional roles as daughters, wives, mothers, nuns and widows.

So what was, according to Erasmus, the purpose of educating girls? An examination of the present dialogue can provide us with at least a partial answer to that question. First of all, Magdalia advocates learning for the general enjoyment of life, equating sapere et suaviter vivere. She also maintains that wisdom is a requirement for a woman in order to administrare rem domesticam (et) erudire liberos. Reading the Scriptures, of course, is another important application of education. What is more, she considers herself fortunate to have a husband who encourages her studies, and believes that her learning actually contributes to their marital bliss: Nam et illum mihi, et me illi cariorem reddit eruditio.

Besides providing women the knowledge they need to run their households and oversee their children's education more effectively, enabling them to read the Scriptures in greater depth, providing them a source of enjoyment and contributing to a deeper intellectual connection between them and their husbands, there is another more important purpose Erasmus sees for ensuring the education of girls: as Erika Rummel so succinctly puts it, Erasmus believes in educating women "to keep them out of trouble." 96 Indeed, Margaret L. King explains that, because of the importance placed on chastity within the economic and social system of the Renaissance, the suspicion that a daughter was not a virgin could bring down the honor of an entire family. This is largely because chastity "assured future husbands of the purity of their line, the legitimacy of their heirs, and the reputation of their family".97 Because an untainted reputation facilitated the negotiation of a marriage that could be mutually advantageous to both families, guarding their chastity was not only job one of the maidens themselves, but also of their parents.98 Erasmus believed that education played an important part in this because it kept girls' minds from being idle. Instilling good values in young women through education, as well as the capacity for good reason, was one of the best ways for parents to hedge against their daughters' falling prey to improper sexual advances.

Returning from the larger question of the education of women to a more specific examination of the character Magdalia, however, there is yet another important role she plays besides being the embodiment of the ideal learned lady. As much as the dialogue focuses on Magdalia's wisdom, it also underscores the ignorance of the abbot Antronius, who is rendered even more ridiculous and spiritually empty in comparison to her. In fact, Erika Rummel maintains that Magdalia's character is "introduced for shock value rather than as an exemplary character," 99 whose purpose it is to shame Antronius rather than to advocate the education of her sex.

Indeed, it is evident from the conclusion of the dialogue that Magdalia's praise of various learned women is meant more as a cautionary tale than as a celebration of the advancement of women. When she warns Antronius that, if he and men like him aren't careful, res eo tandem evadet, ut concionemur in templis; occupabimus mitras vestras, she does not imply that this would be a good thing—in fact, quite the opposite. She views the present state where women are better educated than men as a sign that the world is not as it should be (inverti mundi scenam), and her implicit message to Antronius is: you'd better do something about it—quick. Knowing Erasmus' feelings about clerics, however, one wonders if he believes they would be up to the task of righting the topsy-turvy world.

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Date: last revised 2003-12-18 Author: Jennifer K. Nelson.
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