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 "…a girl (should not) learn ‘pleading and writing poetry'; the vain sex must not reach too high…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....
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