Did women have a Carolingian renaissance?

The question in the title, in some ways, ought to be an unnecessary one. Even in 1981, when Suzanne Wemple was claiming they didn’t, it needed a very narrow definition of the movement to exclude them. If the hagiographer Hugeburc gets excluded because her education was Anglo-Saxon and she didn’t write in the ninth century, then you’re also left with a Carolingian renaissance sans Alcuin. And to imply that Dhuoda doesn’t count because she’s a laywomen is ridiculous. Ever since the evidence has been pointed out for women’s involvement in the movement. Rosamond McKitterick’s written on female readers and scribes, Jinty Nelson on female historians, Steven Stofferahn on nuns and learning and many others.

The more interesting question, perhaps, is what kind of Carolingian renaissance did women have? Here, I want to focus more on the intellectual than the moralistic side of the ‘renaissance’ and compare it with two other periods: late antiquity and the twelfth century renaissance. One interesting way in is to start with the question of what women are reading in the period and what are they writing?

As far as the reading goes, it looks like pretty much everything that men were reading. History, hagiography, poetry (Dhuoda knows some Ovid), theology, medical books and even law texts (one of Eberhard of Friuli’s daughters gets a copy of the Lombard laws). There’s also at least one mention of a text in German. The writing is harder to be certain of, but presuming that the Earlier Metz Annals were written at Gisela’s command (which seems plausible), we have history, hagiography, moral/political tracts (Dhuoda), poetry (Dhuoda again, and nuns’ songs) and letters. (In fact, the Carolingian world may possibly be the first time in Europe/Mediterranean that women are ‘writing’ history at all (though if somebody knows better, then let me know), whereas there’s earlier hagiography, poetry and letters by women).

What we don’t have, as far as I know, is women writing academic theology, philosophy/‘science’ or law and what is interesting is that those three categories look fairly constant over most of antiquity and the Middle Ages as well. Of the three categories, two seem rather obvious exclusions. Women were largely excluded from the law courts, so were unlikely to be able to discuss the topic. And I imagine that academic theology/biblical exegesis, even before it got confined to the universities, would have been seen as too much like ‘women teaching’, and fallen foul of St Paul’s views. (Mystical theology by women, in contrast, seems to have been regarded as OK). As for why no philosophy or ‘science’, that’s slightly trickier, but I suspect that’s to do with how it was taught. More than theology (which you could do off on your own with a collection of the key texts), philosophy tended to be taught personally in a master-disciple relationship, up till the late Middle Ages, at least. Women could only really gain access to this process via close family connections (to avoid scandal): most of the ancient Greek female philosophers seem to have been daughters of male ones. Once ‘philosophers’ could have neither wives nor daughters, that way in was largely blocked. In addition, philosophy and other sciences relied more than other subjects on getting hold of ‘new’ texts: the study of both logic and grammar in the Carolingian renaissance were crucially influenced by texts that Alcuin brought to the Continent. Women’s access to new texts (in terms of material resources in nunnery libraries, and the opportunities to seek out new manuscripts) were always going to be a disadvantage for them in such spheres. It’s also possible that that’s why the greatest early medieval religious women writer, Hrotsvita, wrote in the tenth rather than the ninth century; because it took longer for nunneries than monasteries to benefit from the boost to learning that the Carolingian renaissance gave. (Rosamond McKitterick has pointed to patterns suggesting female scriptoria being built up, with nunneries which have books copied elsewhere in the ninth century, then copying their own in the tenth century).

What all this suggests is that women had about as much of a Carolingian renaissance as it was realistically possible for them to do at the time. It’s hard to see many institutional changes that allowed Ottonian nuns to write and prevented Carolingian ones from doing so. Strict claustration and nunneries not being allowed to educate boys, which Wemple focuses on, wouldn’t, to my mind, be likely to make a major difference. And as Katrien Heene has pointed out, there’s not much sign of Carolingian men thinking intellectual activities are unsuitable for women. Religious women didn’t achieve/benefit as much as religious men in the renaissance largely because they were starting from a lower educational and material basis. Meanwhile, laywomen seem to have shared as fully in the renaissance as laymen. In particularly, it’s not just the existence of Dhuoda, that suggests this, but that we don’t know her family background. Unlike Heloise, unlike Radegund and Christine de Pizan, she didn’t (as far as we know) receive an unusual education from an intellectual family (and I bet she didn’t get it from Bernard of Septimania). Compared to the twelfth century and its institutional and linguistic barriers to female learning (the university and Latin) and to late antiquity and its traditions of public schools, the Carolingian period appears to have been relatively more favourable for women’s intellectual activity. The fact that still meant that they couldn’t participate equally in the renaissance shows how deep the structures ran that limited female opportunities.

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4 thoughts on “Did women have a Carolingian renaissance?

  1. What we don’t have, as far as I know, is women writing academic theology, philosophy/‘science’ or law and what is interesting is that those three categories look fairly constant over most of antiquity and the Middle Ages as well.

    Do you consider Heloise to be writing ‘academic’ theology? Of course she is, as you note, far removed from the standard of twelfth century womanhood by her particularly privileged education, but I wondered if you would include her in the ‘academic’ category or not?

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    • I was trying to make two distinctions in saying that medieval women don’t write academic theology. One is the distinction between studying academic theology and writing it (or at least publishing it). Heloise sems to me in that sense like some of the female friends of Jerome (Paula and Melania the Elder). They clearly have the intellect to write academic theology and they have the training in the fathers that would allow them to do so, but they don’t write in that genre. The women in Jerome’s circle write letters (even though they’re not preserved), Heloise writes letters and possibly also hymns, poems and a monastic rule.

      The second distinction is between academic and other sorts of theology. I would see academic theology as including Biblical exegesis and also the kind of abstract treatise on ‘Why God became man’, the significance of the Eucharist etc. And why I make the distinction is to contrast Heloise and Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard also writes letters and hymns, commentaries on the Benedictine rule, but in addition writes theological works (Scivias etc). Yet she didn’t have the academic training in theology or Latin that Heloise had. Which suggests to me that it is specifically one kind of theology that women are excluded from writing. I suspect that the idea of ‘teaching men’ aspect (from 1 Timothy) is key here, and that Hildegard can get round it by being understood as a ‘prophet’, but Heloise, trained (unusually) in a more mainstream/male tradition, can’t do so.

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  2. I want to agree with you about Bernard of Septimania. And the rest sounds sane too. One of the questions that occurs to me, though, is what kind of education William of Septimania got? We see Dhuoda trying to teach him good Christian principles and also the memory of his kindred, which is well and good. But his career, as we know it, shows little or no uptake or use of these ideas. And the sources would hardly say much about it given what he gets up to, but Bernard suffers from just the same disadvantage. I just wonder whether someone who flew that high at the court of Louis the Pious could have been entirely without intellectual chops. But: maybe he got them from Dhuoda 🙂

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  3. (Apologies for interrupting…) I’ve stumbled across your site a few times and always find it v interesting to read. I’m a student who is researching into the early medieval world (though my background is more late antique), looking more and more at the Carolingians. Found your entry on thinking about Duby’s thesis for the 9th century really helpful. So thank you!

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