We want to like the prologue to Jacques de Vitry’s hagiography (c. 1216) of thirteenth-century holy woman Marie d’Oignies. It serves as a defense of the beguines: a grassroots movement of pious women inventing new ways of living a religious life alone or in community outside a formal monastic environment. But some of Jacques’ thoughts do not sit well with modern sensibilities:
It is sufficiently demonstrated that [the beguines] clung to the Lord during the destruction of the city of Liege. Those who could not flee to the churches threw themselves into the river and chose to die rather than to incur harm to their chastity. Some jumped into dung-filled sewers and preferred to be snuffed out in stink than to be despoiled of their virginity. Despite all this, the merciful Bridegroom so deigned to look after His brides that not a single one in such a great multitude was found who suffered either death to her body or harm to her chastity. 
Exactly what the modern reader wants to hear: it is better for a woman to kill herself than be raped. To the vita’s target audience, however, the beguines’ actions function as proof of their commitment to a religious life outside the formal claustration and celibacy vow of a convent. Their survival is evidence for God’s approval of their way of life.
The vita of Marie, moreover, is not the only time multi-continental bishop, preacher, and very prolific author Jacques talks about a literal leap of faith in service of religious order justification. In one of his Sermones Vulgares, Jacques seeks to exhort crusaders, and especially Templar knights, to spiritual greatness:
I have heard from a certain Templar that at the very beginning of the order, while they were still poor and very fervent in religion, that he himself was coming from the city of Tyre, bringing money and alms which they had received to the city of Acre. He came to a certain place, which has been called ‘Templar’s Leap,’ ever since. For the Saracens had placed an ambush for that noble knight, in a place where on one side there was a sheer cliff and on the other the deepest sea lay below, while the Saracens besieged him from in front and behind on the narrow path. As he had no where to turn, he urged his horse with the spurs, and leapt from the lofty cliff with the horse into the depths of the sea. But the horse – as it pleased the Lord – carried him unharmed to the shore. (trans. Helen Nicholson) 
At first, the story appears to be a near-direct parallel to that of the Liege beguines. A Templar, facing violation of his life and mission (delivery of the money, a nice nod to the Templars’ fabled role as “the world’s first international bank”), chooses to jump from high ground into water, a plunge likely to end in his death. In this case, too, God intervenes, and the Templar’s life is preserved.
But on second glance, the Templar’s leap does not mirror the beguines’ actions so much as cast them into stark relief. In his crusade sermon, Jacques relates the knight’s mental process as he leapt off the cliff: he hoped and prayed that God would deliver him safely. The beguines, according to the bishop, hoped only that they would die.
Dyan Elliott has suggested that the story of the Liege beguines, propagated during the Albigensian Crusade against presumed Cathars in France, functions as anti-Cathar polemic. Orthodox martyrs do not die, so lay people who die in service to claimed religion are heretics, not martyrs.  Elliott skips over the underlying contention in her discussion of martyrdom, but it is worth drawing out in a discussion of beguines and sanctity. Jacques’ argument only works as anti-heretic polemic if the audience already stipulates the orthodoxy of the beguines. In other words, the vita prologue is a collective hagiography preaching (literally) to the choir, not an argument for an inquisitive audience. I’m more interested, though, in modern revulsion and the theological position Jacques implicitly stakes on a different topic: suicide.
Setting aside the views and experiences of women themselves, the rape of religious women was a theologically painful problem for medieval theologians—a problem bound up with suicide from the earliest centuries of Christian theology, thanks to the interplay with the classical tradition and the story of Lucretia. And Jacques and his hagiographical beguines were not necessarily on the right side. Augustine discusses the dilemma at some length in City of God I.16-19, arguing that the virtue of virginity is ultimately a matter of the will; the integrity of the body only reflects the sanctity of the will insofar as the person has control over it.  “We maintain that when a woman is violated while her soul admits no consent to the iniquity, but remains inviolably chaste, the sin is not hers, but his who violates her.” (I.19) He continues on to drive home his point that suicide is a mortal sin, period:
Therefore a woman who has been violated by the sin of another, and without any consent of her own, has no cause to put herself to death; much less has she cause to commit suicide in order to avoid such violation, for in that case she commits certain homicide to prevent a crime which is uncertain as yet, and not her own. (I.18)
The apparent universal survival of the Liege beguines, furthermore, is no magic arrow for Jacques to avoid the problem of actions with a desired outcome of suicide. Medieval doctrine–in point of fact, even Augustine in that same section of City of God–was clear that intention was a crucial factor in determining a sin.
This is where the comparison with the Crusade sermon becomes so revealing. The knight explicitly hopes to survive, even if he knows it is mathematically unlikely. Jacques could have given his hagiographical beguines this way out, but he did not. “Two of the enemy came to her in a boat and intended to commit vile fornication with her. But what can happen to the chaste among lions, to a lamb among wolves, to a dove among eagles? She preferred to sink again into the river than to be violated.”  The Liege beguines’ intention is death, or more flatly: their intention is to kill themselves. Despite this fairly flat contradiction of Church doctrine, Jacques intended this scene as an argument for the legitimacy of the beguines’ lifestyle.
The premium that Christianity places on martyrdom has long carried the uncomfortable flip side of where to draw the line between accepting one’s death and making one’s death happen. The rhetorical strategies of Jacques de Vitry in his vita of Marie d’Oignies and his Crusade sermons add an additional gendered dimension onto the dilemma. And in light of Jacques’ goal to promote the beguine movement, a comparison of the two texts suggests that when it came to arguing for orthodoxy, might heterodoxy be the best policy?
Cait Stevenson, PhD. Medieval Institute University of Notre Dame
 Jacques de Vitry, The Life of Marie d’Oignies, trans. Margot L. King (Peregrina, 1987), 19.
Anna Laminit (c.1480-1518) was one of late medieval Europe’s popular “living saints” or “holy women,” modern terms for women who were considered to have a privileged relationship with God during their lives as well as after death. For nearly fifteen years, she provided spiritual advice and (possibly) physical healing to everyone from pious laywomen to university professors to the Holy Roman Emperor. She was famous as far away as France, compared to living saints in Italy.
And she may have been one of late medieval Europe’s most successful con artists.
Our major sources for Laminit’s life are three Augsburg chronicles written after the fact but by men who were present in the city during her reign and fall. Regarding Laminit, the three offer different details but agree on all major points, and they are uniformly hostile to her.
Laminit came from a family of Augsburg artisans. She was supposedly exiled from the city as a teenager for “mischief,” probably some sort of sexual misconduct, but the punishment may have been largely symbolic. By seventeen or eighteen, she was back in the city and living at a charity-funded group residence for pious widows and unmarried women. Shortly thereafter, it seems, more and more people around her started to believe she was surviving on no food except the Eucharist—the surest sign of God’s special favor. The divine provenance of her inedia was certified by the fact that she tried to eat but was unable (it was not a human feat), and her confessor’s approval of her foregoing earthly food (demonstrating her obedience to the clergy).
Unlike most holy women, Laminit seems to have lacked the typical “powerful (male) cleric” promoter. The only places her confessor are even mentioned are her own supposed legal statement included in Rem’s chronicle, and his later charge that she lied to her confessor. Nevertheless, her fame spread throughout Augsburg and beyond.
Chroniclers stress the high social status of her local visitors; a pre-Reformation Martin Luther stopped to consult with her on his way home from Rome. Some people visited her for advice (sourced from God’s communications to Laminit, of course), others simply to experience proximity to a vessel of God’s grace, and probably others to observe something exotic and exciting. Some copies of Clemens Sender’s chronicle add an interesting detail: Laminit and a group of her women friends used to travel around the countryside outside Augsburg providing healing services.
Other people took advantage of her spiritual power from afar. Many devout Augsburgers donated their money to Laminit for her to distribute to the poor, thus increasing the amount of God’s good will that would reflect back on the original donors. Others donated money and goods to Laminit herself, including a private house near one of Augsburg’s most prestigious churches.
Unlike with other holy women, sources make no mention of a particular powerful (male) cleric who supported and promoted Laminit. However, the Church gladly offered a vehicle for her mutually beneficial social and spiritual climb. She received a designated seat for weekly Mass in the church near her house, drawing more people (and money) to it. Her response to outbreaks of apocalyptic fear in Augsburg and beyond was to call for Church-led penitential processions through the city (also featuring her, of course). Indeed, the sources agree that in the first decade of the sixteenth century, Anna Laminit was “St. Anna” to everyone in Augsburg and beyond.
Everyone except the duchess of Bavaria.
Daughter of one emperor and sister to another, Kunigunde of Austria had retired to a Munich convent after the death of her husband Albrecht, duke of Bavaria, in 1508. And when she invited (“invited”) Laminit to Munich in 1513, she had more in mind than a consultation with a saint. She and the other sisters gave Laminit her own private chamber—a chamber specially prepared with holes in the door. And the first night, they observed Laminit do the one thing a holy woman was not supposed to do: eat. Food under the bed and excrement outside the window confirmed the charade.
According to her supposed confession, Laminit claimed that God had allowed her to eat that one time because she was so weak from travel. But nobody was interested in listening. The discovery that she ate one time was enough to unravel more than a decade of adulation and trust. Despite the animosity reflected by the invective used against Laminit in some of the chronicles, her only punishment was exile from Augsburg—apparently with a good piece of the money people had donated to her over the previous decade.
As for Laminit’s life after sainthood, Rem provides the most (and most colorful) details. Apparently she got married and ended up in Freiburg. And if Rem can be believed, she and her husband spent the next five years running a con based on, of all things, child support fraud. But the game was up when the non-existent child’s father wanted to meet him, and Laminit was executed by drowning in 1518.
Laminit’s end has led to her neglect as a late medieval holy woman in modern scholarship. But despite—or perhaps because of—the ultimate belief that her sanctity was a fraud, the sources that discuss her life are invaluable for insight into popular devotion to living saints and the lives of those saints at the end of the Middle Ages.
Cait Stevenson PhD in Medieval Studies University of Notre Dame
Roth, Friedrich. “Die geistliche Betrügerin Anna Laminit von Augsburg (ca. 1480–1518).” Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte 43 (1924): 355–417.
Weigelt, Sylvia. „Der Männer Lust und Freude sein”. Frauen um Luther. Wartburg-Verlag, 2011.
Preu, Georg. “Die Chronik des Augsburger Malers Georg Preu des Älteren.” In Die Chroniken der schwäbischen Städte: Augsburg, vol. 6, 18-86. S. Hirzel, 1906.
Rem, Wilhelm. “Cronica newer geschichten.” In Die Chroniken der schwäbischen Städte: Augsburg, vol. 5, 1-245. S. Hirzel, 1896.
Sender, Clemens. “Die Chronik von Clemens Sender.” In Die Chroniken der schwäbischen Städte: Augsburg, vol. 4, 1-404. S. Hirzel, 1894.
As a specialist in the study of women’s education and literacy in England in the Middle Ages, I’m asked this question a lot. I’ll cut to the chase: YES.
How do we know this?
Medieval England (on which I’ll focus this blog) was a multilingual nation.1 English had been its primary vernacular from the time of the Anglo-Saxons (about 450) until the Norman Conquest of 1066, when French became the language of the nobility, government, and diplomacy.2 By the mid-fifteenth century, though, English had reasserted dominance as the primary vernacular language, while the Church, clerics, and higher education continued to use Latin.3 Because medieval English people would have heard and used all three languages in daily life, children were taught to read and speak all of them.4 Whether children’s reading knowledge became advanced depended on the importance of reading in their lives and what socioeconomic station they attained. In fact, most of the evidence for literacy survives from the upper classes; uncovering the history of less privileged groups remains difficult.
Medieval scholars commonly thought of childhood in three divisions: infantia (birth to about 7 years), pueritia (about 7 to 14 years), and adolescentia (about 14 to 21 years).5 The teaching of reading began in infantia with parents and nurses, if the family could afford such help.
Girls and boys began by learning the letters of the Latin alphabet and the sounds they made. In this way they acquired the basic skills of early reading, called contemporaneously sillibicare (sounding out syllables) and legere (sounding out words), even if they didn’t understand what those sounds or words meant.6 Singing might have been used as well to teach pronunciation, as sung Latin was used in church services. Because reading was important to promote spiritual instruction, and had indeed been cited at least as far back as Jerome in the fourth century as a reason girls should be taught to read, some of the earliest texts learned were the Pater Noster, the Ave, and the Creed. Alphabets and these simple prayers could be written out on a variety of surfaces: boards, painted walls, wooden trays covered in ash or sand, ceramic or metal vessels, or hand-held tablets made of materials such as slate, horn, or board covered in parchment (more on this below).
Beginning around 1300 in England, medieval parents had a model of teaching in St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary. Depictions of her teaching Mary to read appeared in stained-glass windows, manuscript illuminations, wall paintings, and other artistic representations.7 One such survives today in the Church of St. Nicholas in Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire, England.
In this window, Mary is shown sitting in Anne’s lap and holding a bound book with letters written on its pages. She holds the book open so the text is visible to the reader. Her mother Anne points upward, in a gesture both teacherly and pointing heavenward, perhaps emphasizing the importance of reading for spiritual development.8
This beautifully-painted miniature from a Book of Hours shows Anne and a young Mary holding a book together. With her right hand, Anne isolates text for Mary to examine.
Other surviving representations show Anne using a hornbook (mentioned above) to teach Mary to read. This illustration comes from a Book of Hours that originated in England around 1325–1300.
This detail shows the hornbook more closely.
Though the hornbook was at least a medieval invention (discussed recently by Erik Kwakkel and Trinity College, Cambridge, librarians), it survives only from early modern centuries, as in this example, created in London around 1625. The text is printed on sheepskin parchment and fixed to an oak paddle with a brass frame and iron nails; the handle is used for holding the hornbook. The parchment is laminated over with a processed animal horn (hence the name) to protect the text.
A text from the 1230s, written by a layman, Walter of Bibbesworth, also reveals much about how boys and girls learned, especially languages, in a gentry household. Bibbesworth was a wealthy English landowner and a knight who wrote this book for his neighbor and fellow member of the gentry, Dionisie de Munchensi. Dionisie had three young children to educate, and as part of the expectations of their class, they would have needed to learn a French more advanced than what they would have picked up through everyday living. The image below shows the opening leaf of Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz.
Walter addresses Dionisie in column 1, lines 10-20, identifying the purpose of his text: “Chere soer, pur ceo ke vous me / pryastes ke jeo meyse en ecsryst [sic] / pur vos enfaunz acune apryse / de fraunceys en breve paroles” (Dear sister, because you have asked that I put in writing something for your children to learn French in brief phrases). What follows is a narrative poem, beginning in column 1, line 21, that describes childhood, starting with birth and ending in young adulthood with a large household feast. In each scene, Walter presents French vocabulary for Dionisie’s children to learn.
Many clues in the text demonstrate that the physical book was shown to children so they could learn the reading of words on a page, not just the sounds of them. Walter gives many homophones, for example, that would only make sense in writing, rather than in pronunciation. Some of the vocabulary also has English translations written in between the lines of the main text. You can see this in the image above in the poem, which starts at column 1, line 21, and goes into column two. All the smaller words written between the lines give the English translation of the main text, which is written in French.
In pueritia and adolescentia
Once they moved into pueritia (about 7-14 years of age), girls of the upper classes would often transition into the care of a mistress (called at that time magistra, magistrix, or maitresse). The mistress provided education in such things as deportment, embroidery, dancing, music, and reading.9 For any skills the mistress did not herself have, she could bring in other household members, such as the minstrel for musical training, the chaplain for more advanced reading and spiritual instruction, and the huntsman for hunting. Specialized academic tutors could teach girls more advanced academic subjects. Sometimes these well-to-do girls were sent to other households to be fostered, serving as ladies-in-waiting to upper-class women. Girls, especially those of the upper classes, could be sent to nunneries as well (sometimes beginning in infantia) for education. Not all girls sent to nunneries were meant for the vocation of nun.10
As their reading abilities progressed, girls and boys moved on to reading comprehension (intelligere) and began to read more sophisticated spiritual texts, such as prayer-books, books of hours, psalters, antiphonals, and saints’ lives. They also would continue on, as personal libraries grew in the thirteenth century, in reading romances, histories, poetry, classical authors, theology, philosophy, and more. It is most likely, given that women were not admitted to the university (unlike boys, who could progress from this stage to Latin grammar school and then on at a university level to the study of business, liberal arts, medicine, canon or civil law, or theology), that the reading of these last few would have been limited to girls whose families could afford private tutors.
By the time they reached adulthood, women who were privileged enough to have obtained a sophisticated education and their own libraries could be avid readers.
The historical and literary records provide examples of such sophisticated learning, primarily among the nobility. For example, the Norman monk and chronicler Robert of Torigni (c.1110–1186), praised the education of St. Margaret of Scotland (d. 1093) and her daughter Matilda (1080–1118), wife of Henry I, writing, “Quantae autem sanctitatis et scientiae tam saecularis quam spiritualis utraque regina, Margareta scilicet et Mathildis, fuerint” (Of how great holiness and learning, as well secular as spiritual, were these two queens, Margaret and Matilda).11
In a different Latin life, commissioned by Matilda about her mother Margaret, the biographer describes how Margaret from her childhood would “in Divinarum lectionum studio sese occupare, et in his animum delectabiliter exercere” (occupy herself with the study of the Holy Scriptures, and delightfully exercise her mind) and notes that her husband, King Malcom III, cherished the “libros, in quibus ipsa vel orare consueverat, vel legere” (books, which she herself used either for prayer or reading), even though Malcom himself could not read Latin.12
This image above shows the unidentified female patron of this Book of Hours kneeling on a prie-dieu, her prayer book open to the text “Maria mater gratiae” (Mary, mother of grace). This open book with its discernable text has several functions: it leads the reader into the prayer; it demonstrates the piety of the patron, kneeling in prayer before both her spiritual book and the Blessed Virgin and Christ (illustrated on the facing leaf); and it shows one of the primary purposes of teaching children to read: being able to use spiritual texts in personal devotion.
Even women who were not noble and who were not able to read much Latin possessed and used books such as the one pictured above. In the mid-fifteenth century Englishwoman Margery Kempe wrote through her scribe of a memorable time in her church of St. Margaret in King’s Lynn when a chunk of masonry fell from the ceiling down onto her as she was praying with her prayer book in hand.
The image below comes from her Book of Margery Kempe as preserved in London, British Library, Additional MS 61823. Lines 24-28 narrate, “Sche knelyd upon hir / kneys heldyng down hir hed. and hir boke in hir hand. / prayng owyr lord crist ihesu for grace and for mercy. Sodeynly fel / down fro þe heyest party of þe cherche vowte fro undyr / þe fote of þe sparre on hir hed and on hir bakke a ston / whech weyd .iii. pownd” (She knelt on her knees, bowing down her head and holding her book in her hand, praying to our Lord Christ Jesus for grace and mercy. Suddenly fell down from the highest party of the church out from under the foot of the rafter onto her head and her book a stone which weighed three pounds). She survived, for which she credited the mercy of Christ.
Finally, a note on those of the working classes. I have not discussed them in detail as it is unfortunately difficult, in fact nearly impossible, to say much about the reading skills of those who left few or no records behind: the great majority of women (and men) of the medieval population were laborers who left little trace in the written record. Yet as we see from the image here below, even for working women, especially in the last few centuries of the Middle Ages, possession and use of books was within the norm, provided those books could be afforded.
My focus here has been tightly on the teaching of reading to medieval English girls. Girls and boys alike were taught to read, and began their reading education in the same ways. Boys alone could attend the medieval university and reach the highest (and best educated) ranks of clerics, but if girls had access to the right resources, they too could be highly educated. The evidence demonstrates that the teaching of reading was not linked specifically to gender; rather, it was a function of both socioeconomic station and the usefulness of such skills for one’s life.
If you’re interested in this topic, I cover the subject in much greater detail, with many other examples and suggested readings, in my article, “Women’s Education and Literacy in England, 1066–1540,” in the “Medieval and Early Modern Education” special issue of History of Education Quarterly, and the accompanying HEQ&A podcast.
Megan J. Hall, Ph.D. University of Notre Dame
 On languages in medieval England, see Amanda Hopkins, Judith Anne Jefferson, and Ad Putter, Multilingualism in Medieval Britain (c. 1066–1520): Sources and Analysis (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2012).
 W. M. Ormrod, “The Use of English: Language, Law, and Political Culture in Fourteenth-Century England,” Speculum 78, no. 3 (July 2003), 750–87, at 755; and William Rothwell, “Language and Government in Medieval England,” Zeitschrift für französische Sprache und Literatur 93, no. 3 (1983), 258–70.
 David Bell, What Nuns Read: Books and Libraries in Medieval English Nunneries (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1995), 57.
 On the complexities of a trilingual England, with a number of helpful citations therein for further reading, see Christopher Cannon, “Vernacular Latin,” Speculum 90, no. 3 (July 2015), 641–53.
 A variety of frameworks were imposed upon the ages of humankind, though these major divisions for the stages of childhood were fairly commonly accepted. For a discussion, see Nicholas Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry: the Education of the English Kings and Aristocracy, 1066-1530 (London: Methuen, 1984), 5–7; and Daniel T. Kline, “Female Childhoods,” in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing, ed. Carolyn Dinshaw and David Wallace (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 13–20, at 13.
 Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, “‘Invisible Archives?’ Later Medieval French in England,” Speculum 90, no. 3 (July 2015), 653–73. For more on levels of reading Latin, see Bell, What Nuns Read, 59–60; and Malcolm B. Parkes, “The Literacy of the Laity,” in Scribes, Scripts, and Readers: Studies in the Communication, Presentation, and Dissemination of Medieval Texts, 1976 (London: Hambledon Press, 1991), 275–97, at 275.
 On the cult of St. Anne and the teaching of reading, see Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 244–45; and Clanchy, “Did Mothers Teach their Children to Read?,” in Motherhood, Religion, and Society in Medieval Europe, 400–1400: Essays Presented to Henrietta Leyser, ed. Conrad Leyser and Lesley Smith (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011), 129–53. For further examples and a detailed analysis of the Education of the Virgin motif, see Wendy Scase, “St. Anne and the Education of the Virgin,” in England in the Fourteenth Century: Proceedings of the 1991 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. Nicholas Rogers (Stamford, UK: Paul Watkins, 1993), 81–98.
 For a discussion of this window, see Orme, Medieval Children,244–45.
 Boys (especially royal princes) typically followed the same path of moving from the nursery into the care of an educator-caretaker: pedagogus (a term used into the eleventh century) or magister or me[i]stre (terms in use from the twelfth century forward) (Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry, 19).
 Excellent reading on the education of girls in nunneries is found in Eileen Power, Medieval English Nunneries, c. 1275 to 1535 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1922); Alexandra Barratt, “Small Latin? The Post-Conquest Learning of English Religious Women,” in Anglo-Latin and Its Heritage, Essays in Honour of A. G. Rigg on His 64th Birthday, ed. Siân Echard and Gernot R. Wieland (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2001), 51–65; and J. G. Clark, “Monastic Education in Late Medieval England,” in The Church and Learning in Late Medieval Society: Essays in Honour of R. B. Dobson; Proceedings of the 1999 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. Caroline Barron and Jenny Stratford (Donington, UK: Shaun Tyas/Paul Watkins, 2002), 25–40; and Dorothy Gardiner, English Girlhood at School: A Study of Women’s Education Through Twelve Centuries (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1929).
 Robert of Torigni [Robertus de Monte], Historia nortmannorum liber octavus de Henrico I rege anglorum et duce northmannorum, ed. J.-P. Migne, Patrologia cursus completus, series latina 149 (Paris, 1853), col. 886; translated in “History of King Henry the First, by Robert de Monte,” ed. Joseph Stevenson, The Church Historians of England vol. 2, part 1 (London, 1858), 10.
 Transcribed in Symeonis Dunelmensis Opera et Collectanea, ed. J. Hodgson Hinde, vol. 1 (London, 1868), at 238, 241, from the version preserved in London, British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius D iii, fols. 179v–186r (late twelfth century).