A very brief, incomplete, and stopgap account of women in medieval logic

This afternoon Catarina commented on FB about the glaring lack of women logicians in the currently-being-edited Cambridge Companion to Medieval Logic. It's a topic that I've recently bumped heads with myself when trying to tread the line between encouraging my department to draw their curricula from a wide variety of sources, not just in terms of gender but also in terms of time and geography, while also ensuring that no rigorous quota for women authors was instituted as departmental policy, for while there are certainly a number of good secondary authors on medieval logic who are women, were I to ever teach a course dedicated to medieval logic, semantics, and philosophy of language, I didn't want to be put into a place of being required to teach women who don't exist.

But is it true that they don't exist? The conversation on the FB pointed out at the commonly held view of women being barred from higher education is a false one [1], with women being allowed at Italian universities, which even had female professors such as Maria di Novella, who became professor of mathematics at Bologna at the age of 25. (On the question of the percentage of women students in Italy, J.J. Walsh in The Thirteenth: Greatest of Centuries comments that matriculation lists tell us "very little that is absolute with respect to the sex of the matriculates" because "not a few girls are called by men's names and without the feminine termination which is so distinctive among the English speaking peoples [and] in olden times this was still more the case". Putting on my onomastic hat, I must point out that this is incorrect. While, yes, many names which are considered strongly gendered nowadays were used by both men and women in the Middle Ages, it was in English, not Italian, contexts where the gender of the person is not indicated by a feminine ending. Furthermore, the matriculation lists would've been written in Latin, an inherently gendered language. It is in general extremely easy to determine the gender of the bearer of a name recorded in Latin; it is only in cases where the Latinization is very light, such as in the Latinization of some names of Germanic origin, that it can be ambiguous. Germanic names, however, never had the strong foothold in Italy that they did in France and Germany, with names of Latin or Etruscan origin making up the majority of the name-pool. And even then, a trained onomastic will know that a Latinized name ending in -burg (as opposed to the explicitly marked -burgus or -burga / -burgis) is much more likely to be female than male, whereas one ending in -wald (again as opposed to the explicitly marked -waldus or -walda) is more likely to be male than female.) Unfortunately, I believe Bologna is treated in vol. 1 of Rashdall's Medieval Universities, which is the volume I don't own, so any further discussion of female professors there will have to be relegated to another post. In vol. 3 of Rashdall, there is a brief mention of women in connection to the University of Salamanca, founded c. 1227-8:

Salamanca is not perhaps precisely the place where one would look for early precedents for the higher education of women. Yet it was from Salamanca that Isabella the Catholic is said to have summoned Doña Beatriz Galindo to teach her Latin long before the Protestant Elizabeth put herself to school under Ascham [p. 88].

Beatriz Galindo was born sometime around 1465 in Salamanca, and studied grammar at one of the university's dependent institutions. She taught philosophy and medicine at Salamanca, and a commentary on Aristotle, Notas y comentarios sobre Aristóteles, is attributed to her (cf. S. Knight & S. Tilg, The Oxford Handbook of Neo-Latin, p. 367, and J. Stevenson, Women Latin Poets, p. 204). Little on the Notas appears to be available in English.

The answer to the question of whether there were women logicians in the Middle Ages depends, of course, on how 'logician' is defined (and also on how 'Middle Ages' is defined, but I'll let myself interpret that period very liberally here). One way would be to take it narrowly, and look for women who taught logic at the university level, or who wrote treatises with topics and titles that are clearly connected to the logical canon: Treatises on syllogisms, on the Organon, on consequences, on insolubles, on sophisms, on supposition, on syncategorematic terms, on obligationes. On that view, finding someone who qualifies may indeed be difficult.

A more fruitful approach would be to treat the subject broadly, as indeed it was treated in the Middle Ages, where dialectic included grammar and rhetoric along with logic, look at women who employed or commented on logical techniques, or who participated in philosophical methodology more broadly, or who even, by other means, provide us with evidence concerning the educational milieu and opportunities for women. On this view, we would be remiss if we didn't mention such women as:

  • Dhuoda: Dhuoda, aka Dodana or Duodena, lived in the 9th C. She married the son of a cousin of Charlemagne around 824, and their first son, William, was born two years later. Another son, Bernard, was born 15 years later, and during the next two years, Dhuoda wrote a moral handbook for her sons, the Liber Manualis (a rather poor scan of a portion of the Liber Manualis is available here). The Manual was a guide to good conduct, and is the only known work by a Carolingian woman known to have survived. It is useful as a guide to the type of education that a woman of relatively high social status would have had during this period (there is evidence that she is familiar with the grammarian Donatus, cf. ch. 8 of M. Thiébaux, The Writings of Medieval Women: An Anthology, and she also cites Isidore's etymology of oratio 'prayer' as oris ratio 'the reason of the mouth'). The Manual has chapters on such diverse topics as "the mystery of the Trinity", "how to pray and for whom", "social order and secular success", "interpreting numbers", and "the usefulness of reciting the Psalms". From the point of view of someone who is interested in medieval female logicians, philosophers, or mathematicians, that section on "interpreting numbers" looks of relevance. Alas, it in fact turns out to be an interesting excursus into numerology! (Numerological reasoning is also found in books 1, 4, and 6.)
  • Hildegard of Bingen: Hildegard von Bingen as born in Germany at the end of the 11th C. She was broadly educated, writing both fiction and non-fiction, including works in botany and medicine. Her significance in the context of medieval dialectics likes not on the side of logic but rather in rhetoric: As a theologian, she not only wrote letters and poems but also was a traveling preacher. Her contributions to and her place in the history of rhetoric are well documented.
  • Eloise d'Argenteuil: Eloise hardly needs introduction to logicians, as her name is well-known as it has been co-opted as the name of the existential player in two-player logic/semantic games. While we have no explicitly logical writings (in the narrow sense defined above) by her, you cannot work so closely with a logician for as long as she without absorbing some of its influence (being married a logician myself, I can attest to this; as can he, most likely), and, after Abelard's death, Peter of Cluny in a letter to her complimented her on the fact that she had "left logic for the gospel, Plato for Christ, the Academy for the clositer" (quoted in H. M. Jewell, Women In Dark Age And Early Medieval Europe c.500-1200). A complete understanding of the academic and social milieu of logic and philosophy in the mid 12th century would not be possible without knowledge of her writings.
  • Christine de Pizan: Christine de Pizan was born in Venice in the middle of the 14th C, but spent most of her adult life in France, later living and working amongst many of the French ducal and royal courts. She's best known for her courtly poetry, but she also wrote books of practical advice for women, and her two most important prose works are The Book of the City of Ladies and The Treasure of the City of Ladies. In the former, she enters into a dialogue with the allegorical figures of Reason, Justice, and Rectitude, all in the female perspective. Both books are written in a highly skilled dialectical style, the study of which would provide interesting insight into the relationship between women's education and the classical disciplines of logic, rhetoric, and dialectic as taught in Italy and Paris at the end of the 14th C. So far, I have found very little that explicitly discuss this question; two articles I have found (but haven't yet had a chance to read) are J. D. Burnley, "Christine de Pizan and the So-Called Style Clergial", The Modern Language Review 81, no. 1 (Jan. 1986): 1-6, and C. M. Laennec, "Unladylike Polemics: Christine de Pizan's Strategies of Attack and Defense", Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 12, no. 1 (1993): 47-59.
  • Julian of Norwich: Julian of Norwich was born in Norwich around 1342, thus almost exactly Christine's contemporary, and is the first woman known to have written in Middle English. She is best described as a mystic theologian, rather than a philosopher, and so may be considered outside the relevant scope. However, her "Long Text" (~63,000 words, called such in contrast with the earlier "Short Text" of ~11,000 words) is a treatise reflecting on a set of divine visions that she had after an illness in 1373. While the Short Text was primarily a simple account of the visions, in the Long Text she seeks to understand their meaning and signfication. While there is little in terms of explicit discussion of theories of signification, the fact that questions of meaning pervade the text is clear. "Woldst thou wetten this lord mening in this thing?" she asks, and answers that "love was his mening". As with Christine above, I have found very little secondary literature which discusses the semantic or significative theory underpinning Julian's "Long Text", but I suspect that a close examination of this text in such a light would prove extremely fruitful and interesting. (But see footnote 6 of V. Gillespie and M. Ross, "'With Mekeness Aske Perseverantly': On Reading Julian of Norwich", Mystics Quarterly 30, nos. 3/4 (2004): 126-141, and the reference cited therein.)

These women may not be logicians strictly speaking, but reading them and their works can inform our knowledge of developments in dialectic and its applications in the Middle Ages.

Finally, I'd like to share a brief reference I found in the lyrics of the troubadours to women and dialectic. In the 13th C Occitan romance Flamenca, two young women, Flamenca and Margarida, are engaged in rewriting some poetry for Margarida to send to her lover, and in the process, Flamenca speaks highly of Margarida's skill in 'dialectic':

Flamenca said to her, "Who has taught you,
Margarida, who has shown you---
by the faith you owe me---such dialectic? (5441-5443)

(From Thiébaux, op. cit., p. 244.)

This post is but a smattering of information that was easily available via books I have on hand and the internet; but I hope it will provide a beginning for a larger account of the contributions of women to dialectic in the Middle Ages!


[1] It was, however, true for England until the early 19th C; see A. Cobban, English University Life in the Middle Ages, pp. 1-2.

© 2015, Sara L. Uckelman.