‘An Exceptional Mind’

The learned Anna Maria van Schurman
  • Brita Rang
Part of the Archives Internationales D’Histoire Des Idées / International Archives of the History of Ideas book series (ARCH, volume 146)


At first glance it would appear self-evident: research into Anna Maria van Schurman has to concentrate primarily on the learned Van Schurman. It is, after all, the learned Van Schurman who has thus far received the greatest attention. Her fame throughout history has been based above all on her scholarship. Upon closer scrutiny, however, the researcher is faced with a paradox. Van Schurman is regarded as one of the leading female scholars of her age, and yet we do not have a single scholarly work written by her.


Scholarly Work Oriental Language Christian Woman Reading Matter Female Learning 
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  1. 1.
    In addition to the Dissertatio and letters from Van Schurman, Rivet, Colvius, Lydius and Vorstius, this publication also contains epigrams and poems to the learned Van Schurman. Parts of the correspondence between Van Schurman and Rivet, dating from 1637 and 1638, were published in Paris in 1646 under the title Question celebre (this does not include the Dissertatio). The Dissertatio is also incorporated in the Opuscula (1648) pp. 28–56. An English translation of the Dissertatio and of letters to and from several scholars, entitled The Learned Maid or, Whether a Maid may be a Scholar, appeared in 1659.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Bovenschen, Die imaginierte Weiblichkeit (1979).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    For a discussion of the Dissertatio see also the chapter by Caroline van Eck in this book.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Letter dated 18–3–1638: ‘Dissertatio tua elegantissima pro tuo sexu & ingeniorum muliebrum ad omnes liberales artes & scientias capescendas aptitudine, virorum ingenia adequante, forsam et super-ante, me aliquamdiu suspensum ternit.’ In: Dissertatio (1641) p. 60. According to Schotel and Douma an edition of the Dissertatio in octavo had been published in Paris as early as 1638. Roothaan and Van Eck on the other hand, assume on the basis of introductory remarks by Van Beverwijck in the Dissertatio that a pirate edition appeared in Paris in 1640, see ‘Anna Maria van Schurman’s verhouding tot de wetenschap’ 1990) p. 196, note 4. Van Beverwijck does indeed state (p. 6) that Van Schurman’s writings (‘tua edita’) had been made public ‘satis neglegenter’ in Paris by Rivet, but in the previous year [1639]. I have been unable to relate this remark to any publication of the Dissertatio — not one library or catalogue owns or lists such an edition. It is true, however, that Mersenne had asked Rivet in a letter dated 23–6–1638 to send him information about a certain ‘demoiselle d’Utrecht’, see Correspondance VII (1962) pp. 213 ff. I suspect that Rivet had sent copies of letters (including the ‘dissertatio’) and possibly other publications. The dedication in the English edition of the Dissertatio (‘To the honourable Lady, the Lady A.H.’) also contains a remark about an earlier edition in the English language. To date, no such edition has been traced.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    The precise date is VIII Idus IXbris 1637 (6–11–1637), see the manuscript collection in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (KB), The Hague, 133 B 8, no. 14. This letter is incorporated in the Dissertatio (1641) and the Question celebre (1646) with the date ‘XIII Idus Martis 1638’. See Dissertatio (1641) pp. 43–59; Question celebre (1646) pp. 1–40.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Question celebre (1646) p. 11: ‘(…) du temps pour caresser les Muses’. I shall quote hereafter from the French edition. Sometimes, however, the Latin is less ambiguous, in which cases I refer to the Opuscula (first impression, 1648) or the Dissertatio (1641).Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Dibon, Inventaire de la correspondance d’André Rivet (1971) gives this date, but takes it from the Opuscula. On p. 142 Dibon refers to another unpublished letter (dated 8 Id. Mart 38; i.e. 8–3–1638) from Van Schurman which forms part of this debate (British Museum, London). This letter begins — most interestingly — with the sentence: ‘Magni certi, prout decet, facio tuum judicium’. Van Schurman is thus assuring Rivet that she is prepared to listen to his opinion in as far as it is fitting.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Letter 6–11–1637, KB The Hague 133 B 8, no. 14; cf. Question celebre (1641) p. 10.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Cf. Dissertatio (1641) p. 44.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    This comment is intended to be one of more general principle, but also relates to the situation in November 1637. In this context we should bear in mind the death of her mother, which in fact threw her into a new social situation.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Cf. the letter of 1–3–1632 in: Opuscula (1648) pp. 55 ff.; Dissertatio (1641) pp. 40 ff., here p. 40.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    The letter opens with observations about her own uncertainty. Cf. Question celebre (1646) pp. 3 ff.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Ibid., p. 6. Cf. Voetius, Sermoen van de Nutticheydt der Academien (1636).Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Question celebre (1646) pp. 48 ff.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Ibid., p. 29: ‘universellement necessaire’.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Ibid., p. 52.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Ibid., p. 46.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Ibid., p. 43.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Ibid., p. 11.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Ibid., p. 8.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Ibid., p. 49: ‘De quelles sciences, me dira t’on? Je repons qu’elles peuvent s’adonner à la cognoissance des lettres humaines & de toutes les parties de la Philosophie, & ainsi des autres, où il est necessaire d’avoir l’intelligence des langues. Et finalement (…) ce grand amas (…) que l’on appelle Encyclopedie.’Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Ibid., pp. 48–51.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Ibid., p. 58.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    For example ibid., p. 62: ‘Car je croy que vous m’ accorderes facilement que les femmes ne sont pas de leur nature toutes propres à enseigner, non plus qu’elles n’ont pas toutes cette avantage que vous avez (…)’.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Ibid., p. 38.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Cf. the introductory sentence, quoted above, in Rivet’s letter of 18 March 1638 (‘virorum ingenia adaequante, forsan & superante’) in: Dissertatio (1641) pp. 60 ff.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Following its publication in 1600 this treatise was reprinted in 1608 and 1621. Part of this work has been translated into German in: Gössmann (ed.),Archiv II (1988). Cf. Question celebre (1646) pp. 72 ff.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Ibid., p. 31. On the basis of four aspects (name/matter/place/time) Marinella demonstrated the superiorities of women. Her name (Eve means life), her inspired physicality (created from the body of the man), the place of her creation (Paradise) and the time of her creation (the last creature to be created) all, in her view, placed women above men. The fact that women were unable to make use of this exceptional creational background on earth was the fault of men. Van Schurman did not adopt such arguments.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    I am assuming that the letter ‘Quod tot tantisque negotiis occupatus’ from Van Schurman is a reply to the letter from Rivet cited above. In terms of content this is certainly the case, but the dates do not bear it out. ‘Quod tot tantisque’ is dated ‘Pridie Idus Marlis 1638’, in other words 14–3–1638; the letter from Rivet (the original of which is unknown to me) is dated 18–3–1638.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Question celebre (1646) p. 73.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Ibid., p. 18Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    Marinella, Le Nobiltà (German translation, 1988) p. 31.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    Ibid., p. 33.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    De Brachart, Harengue faicte (1604) p. 5: ’(…) que si une miserable subjecti, à laquelle ilz nous ont tiranniquement soubsmises, ne nous ostoit tous moyens de pratiquer les sciences’.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Van Schurman’s letter bearing the date 14–3–1638 may, as we have said, be incorrectly dated (see note 29). Cf. Dissertatio (1641) pp. 70 ff.; Question celebre (1646) pp. 69 ff.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    Question celebre (1646) p. 70.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    Ibid., pp. 74 ff. ‘(…) si dans nostre sexe, il y a quelques vertus loûables (…) les hommes en doivent estre les Herauts & les Trompettes. Il nous suffit que nous ayons le temoignage secret de notre propre conscience [Lat.: conscientia], & que chacune de nous s’examine soy-mesme, & face enfin tout ce qu’elle doit faire.’Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    Question celebre (1646) p. 76.Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    The Latin word she used to describe her reflections is nugae’, which could be translated as trifles, nonsense or foolishness. The French translator Colletet—undoubtedly with the French readers in mind — made this ‘resveries’, which can be translated as ‘dreams’. Cf. Dissertatio (1641) p. 70.; Question celebre (1646) p. 69.Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    Other women never received such recognition. One can think of Maria Cunitz or Maria de Zayas, who were conversant with the contemporary debates taking place in physics and literature respectively.Google Scholar
  41. 41.
    As Marijke Spies suggests in ‘Charlotte de Huybert’ (1986).Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    J.H. Alsted (1588–1638) was a theologian and encyclopedist at the university in Herborn. He championed a certain realism, an attitude focused on the reality of worldly existence. He was consequently of influence on socially inspired, practically-oriented thinking. In Van Schurman’s case I am not sure whether she was also directly influenced by arguments based in natural law. Religiously and politically motivated ideas about the ‘equality’ of human existence were not always kept entirely separate in the seventeenth century. I would therefore be loath to stress religiosity on the one hand and natural law/republicanism on the other, but would rather lay emphasis on the thought that Van Schurman’s ideas about the fundamental equality of woman and man had a mainly practical theological foundation.Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    See among others Smith, Reason’s disciples (1982).Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    Cf. Voisine, ‘Un astre éclipsé’ (1972) p. 506.Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    Yvon, Oprecht verhaal (1754) pp. 235 ff.Google Scholar
  46. 46.
    Manuscript collection Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht, 8* F 19. The letter is reproduced in Van der Horst et al. (ed.), Handschriften en oude drukken (1984) pp. 282 ff.Google Scholar
  47. 47.
  48. 48.
  49. 49.
    Mersenne, Correspondance X (1967) p. 224.Google Scholar
  50. 50.
    Cf. Yvon, Oprecht verhaal (1754).Google Scholar
  51. 51.
    Dissertatio (1641) pp. 83–90.Google Scholar
  52. 52.
    For the relationship between Huygens and Descartes cf. among others Dibon, ‘Constantijn Huygens’ (1950); Korteweg, Ten en ander over Constantijn Huygens’ (1888); Roth (ed.), Correspondence (1926). Google Scholar
  53. 53.
    Opuscula (1648) pp. 300 ff., dated January 1644.Google Scholar
  54. 54.
    Ibid., pp. 281 ff. Cf. in this context also Thijssen-Schoute, Nederlands cartesianisme (1954) pp. 19 ff.; Cohen, Ecrivains français (1920).Google Scholar
  55. 55.
    Letter dated XII kal. jan. 1644, in: Opuscula (1648) p. 212.Google Scholar
  56. 56.
    This is not the place to discuss the fact that Van Schurman’s friend Colvius exchanged ideas with Descartes about similarities between ‘cogito ergo sum’ and a passage in St. Augustine. Cf. Descartes, Oeuvres III (1899) pp. 247 ff.Google Scholar
  57. 57.
    Dissertatio (1641) pp. 12 ff.Google Scholar
  58. 58.
    Ibid., p. 85. She suggests that, given the differences between the mind and the body, the body simply has to become ‘plus spirituel & plus obeïssant aux excercices de l’esprit’.Google Scholar
  59. 59.
    Opuscula (1648) p. 303.Google Scholar
  60. 60.
  61. 61.
    The fact that Rivet’s attitude to Descartes’ work was not as black and white as Voetius’ emerges from various sources. Rivet read the Principia philosophiae,which Descartes himself sent him in 1644, with interest. In the debate between Gassendus and Descartes, however, he sided with Gassendus. Both he and Descartes were friends of Mersenne. Cf. Thijssen-Schoute, Nederlands cartesianisme (1954) pp. 469 ff.Google Scholar
  62. 62.
    Eucleria (1684) p. 38.Google Scholar
  63. 63.
    Saxby, Quest, for the New Jerusalem (1987) pp. 160–161, 167–168.Google Scholar
  64. 64.
    Schotel, Anna Maria van Schurman (1853) pp. 179–181. Cf. Eucleria (1684) pp. 234–242 and 52: “Divine faith’, is not based in human reason. ‘The truth’ is not confirmed by ‘human reasons, or by the artificially shaped grounds of proof’.Google Scholar
  65. 65.
    Cf. Eucleria (1684) p. 49 and the article by Angela Roothaan in this book.Google Scholar
  66. 66.
    Letter dated 7–9–1639 from Van Schurman to Elizabeth of the Palatinate, in: Opuscula (1648) p.Google Scholar
  67. 67.
    Eucleria (1684) p. 46.Google Scholar
  68. 68.
    Cf. Schotel, Anna Maria van Schurman (1853) notes, p. 11.Google Scholar
  69. 69.
    Douma, Anna Maria van Schurman (1924) pp. 30–31. The codex is in the Staats-und Universitätsbibliothek, Hamburg. cf. Carl Brockelmann, Katalog der orientalischen Handschriften (Hamburg 1969) II-III, VI, VIII, 4.Google Scholar
  70. 70.
    Cf. Weyers, ‘Iets over Job Ludolf’ (1838) p. 389.Google Scholar
  71. 71.
    See the introductory chapter by Mirjam de Baar and me in this book.Google Scholar
  72. 72.
    Eucleria (1684) p. 20.Google Scholar
  73. 73.
    Opuscula (1648) pp. 256–257.Google Scholar
  74. 74.
    Schotel, Letter-en oudheidkundige avondstonden (1841); Huygens, Mijn jeugd (1987).Google Scholar
  75. 75.
    Cf. the letter of 5–12–1629, in: Schotel, Anna Maria van Schurman (1853) appendices, p. 112.Google Scholar
  76. 76.
  77. 77.
    His tutorship probably did not commence until 1631. Cf. the letters of 20–7–1631 and 2–1–1632 from Van Schurman to Rivet, KB The Hague 133 B 8, nos. 1 and 2. The list was not, however, restricted to theological books alone; Rivet provided her with a diverse range of reading matter. A letter dated 23–7–1639 from Huygens to Rivet refers to a book, parts of which Van Schurman will certainly skip because it contained outspoken passages, see Huygens, Briefwisseling II (1913) p. 464.Google Scholar
  78. 78.
    Eucleria (1684) p. 22: Her parents had ‘from my childhood, imbued in me (…) an aversion to such Authors (…) as might have turned my thoughts away from chastity and maidenly purity, so that throughout my whole life I have consistently shrunk from reading that class of book, and particularly from reading such Poets, both Greek and Latin, as if they were a poisoned drink (…)’.Google Scholar
  79. 79.
    She described this self-censorship in very telling terms. Books with ‘worldly’ or ‘mixed subject matter’ were not read ‘or tasted only fleetingly with the outermost part of the lips’. Eucleria (1684) p. 23.Google Scholar
  80. 80.
    Cf. among others a letter to Colvius, 9–9–1637 in: Dissertatio (1641) p. 88; a letter from Johan Godschalk to Huygens dated 7–2–1649, in: Schotel, Anna Maria van Schurman (1853) appendices, pp. 113 ff.Google Scholar
  81. 81.
    Letter to Colvius, 9–9–1637, in: Dissertatio (1641) p. 88.Google Scholar
  82. 82.
    When Van Schurman failed to keep an appointment on one occasion, he sent her a note: ‘(…) Schaemt u soo loosen feit; dit moet bedriegen heeten;/Sulck uwe Voetius u weinigh dancks zou weten (…)’. [’C..) Shame on you for this remissness; this must be called deception;/ For which your Voetius would not be grateful to you (…)’.] In: Schotel, Anna Maria van Schurman (1853) p. 114.Google Scholar
  83. 83.
    This is evidenced not only by the letters in the Opuscula (1648) but also by those which Dorothy Moore wrote to and received from Rivet in Utrecht in 1643. These letters — three from Moore (23–91643/ 18–10–1643/ 3–11–1643), two replies from Rivet (29–9–1643/ 28–10–1643) — deal with the question of female learning. See Dibon, Inventaire de la correspondance d’André Rivet (1971) p. 396. The letters are among the ‘Hartlib Papers’ in the university library in Sheffield, UK.Google Scholar
  84. 84.
    Opuscula (1648) pp. 220 ff.Google Scholar
  85. 85.
    Towards the end of the sixteen-thirties, however, she began to withdraw for months at a time — something that was noticed by her friends and occasionally irritated them. Huygens, for example, complained that she had not replied to him for eight months or more after he had sent her a book ‘et ceste bonne dame se tait. Cela est-il des regles de la philosophie d’Utrecht?’ (letter dated 1–1–1645 to Utricia Ogle), in: Huygens, Briefwisseling IV (1915) p. 111. In 1639 Rivet explained this state of affairs by referring to Voetius’ increasingly strong influence over her: ‘Mais Mons. Voetius luy charge tellement l’esprit, et lui taille tant d’affaires.’ Letter dated 26–9–1639 to Huygens, in: Briefwisseling II (1913) p. 503. The fact that she failed to reply to the ‘famous’ letter from the Haarlem musicologist and Cartesian, Ban(nius), of 20–8–1640 is part of this picture. Many scholars of the day noted this omission with annoyance. Cf. the various letters on the subject in: Mersenne, Correspondance X (1967). Nevertheless, the many letters Van Schurman wrote during this period show that she was endeavouring to live up to the image that the learned world had of her. In the Eucleria (1684) she observed that it is ‘very difficult to make one’s exit’ from the ‘Stage of a famous name’, p. 12.Google Scholar
  86. 86.
    Schotel, Anna Maria van Schurman (1853) p. 146 (letter dated 3–2–1654).Google Scholar
  87. 87.
    Wallmann, Philipp Jakob Spener (1986) pp. 307–320. For these contacts see the chapter by Erica Scheenstra in this book. See also the letter to Rachelius, in: Geleerde brieven (1728) (this letter is reproduced in Schotel,Anna Maria van Schurman (1853) appendices, pp. 116 ff.).Google Scholar
  88. 88.
    See also the chapter by Mirjam de Baar in this book.Google Scholar
  89. 89.
    Paullini, Hoch-und Wohl-gelahrtes Teutsches Frauen-Zimmer (1712) p. 141.Google Scholar
  90. 90.
    She protests against excessive praise in a number of letters; see the letter to Van Beverwijck after she received his book Van de Wtnementheyt des vrouwelicken geslachts in 1639 (Opuscula (1648) pp. 187 ff.); letter to Simon d’Ewes (Nov. 1645), in: Opuscula (1648) pp. 217 ff. Spanheim Sr. mentions her virtues in the introduction to the Opuscula; among them, he says, is her dislike of praise.Google Scholar

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© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1996

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  • Brita Rang

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