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Female scribes through history

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Dear flourishers, I've started a bit of research regarding female scribes / calligraphers in the past. In premodern times most female scribes in Europe were to be found in convents – they also needed scribes, and men were not allowed, so some nuns (mostly those coming from nobler families, but also craftsmen's or merchant's daughters, as far as my research tells me) learnt not only reading but also writing and illumination.

I'd be delighted for more names – feel free to post more links! Sorry, some of my finds are only available in German. For some scribes there is very little information, if someone is able to dig out more, I'd find it very interesting!

For a start, look at that cheerful nun! This is a page from a book written and illuminated (probably) by Elsbeth Stagel around 1440. It is from a »Schwesternbuch« (= book of sisters), describing religious experiences of devine grace from the sisters in the convent of Töss (Switzerland). They were Dominican sisters. Elsbeth carries the typical tools with that also male scribes were usually shown – quill and pen knife:

Elsbeth Stagel (Switzerland, 14. Century)

More about sister-books in general:

Sister-books (Germany, Switzerland, Middle Ages)

And some other scribes:

Regula von Lichtenthal (Germany, 15. Century)

Dorothea Schermann (Germany, 16. Century)

Ida of Nivelles (Belgium, 13. Century – according to the German Wikipedia entry, she was also a scribe and illuminator)

Nuns from the scriptorium of the Klarissenkloster Sankt Clara (Germany, 14. Century)

Just a mention in a list of graves:

Irtyu (Egypt, 600 to 300 before Christ)

The old Egyptians also had a goddess of writing:

Sehat, Old Egypt

In this (German) article about one of Mohamed's wifes, Hafsa bint Umar, a female scribe is mentioned that teached Hafsa writing and reading:

Schifāʾ bint ʿAbdallāh al-ʿAdawīya (Saudi Arabia, 7. Century)

Christine de Pizan, one of the earliest known female authors, was also a skilled scribe:
Christine de Pizan (France, 15. Century)

She worked with another female artist, who must have been an outstanding illuminator:
Anastasia (France, 15. Century)

Sorry, bit of a not so pretty picture, but this is evidence of another female illuminator from medieval times – the evidence being teeth with dental plaque containing lapislazuli pigments: she must have licked her brush (I got that link from the newsletter of British master calligrapher Patricia Lovett):
Unknown artist (Germany, around the year 1000)

Then Maria Strick, a Dutch scribe, teacher and head mistress – her husband actually engraved her work! Thanks to @sybillevz for telling me about her:
Maria Strick (Netherlands, 17. Century) and a bit about her life.

I'm sure there are more and I'll keep digging if I have time … would be interested also about women writers in Asia – maybe also in monastery settings? … Also I think I read somewhere about a famous female Turkish calligrapher (Arabic calligraphy), but I couldn't find her name with a quick search. There was also another Swiss scribe, who was not a nun, and who was nearly publishing a copy book, but then had to look after a sick family member and apparently nothing came from the plans. She must have been very talented, but it seems I forgot to bookmark the link and can't find out more now.

Have a nice weekend everyone!

Very cool! Thanks for sharing. I look forward to more as you find them.

Very interesting topic Stefanie !
There is of course Maria Strick, whom you already mentioned. She was a badass scribe and won the "golden quill" at a contest against the best master penmen of her time. Her Italian hand was specially praised by the judges. She published 4 copybooks with the help of her husband who engraved just for her (I think he also didi it as a favor for someone else though)....

There is Esther Inglis, a Frenchwoman who migrated to England because she was a protestant. I don't think I have seen any of her work, she didn't publish anything, but her work was highly regarded. I'll see what I can dig up about her.

Finally, I read that there was a wonderful penwoman in London around the time Bickham was looking for contributors for the Universal Penman. She was said to be better than some of the other contributors, but Bickham didn't want to shock any of his subscribers and decided not to use her submissions. I'm going to try and find her name in my notes if I can...

Ooooh that sounds fascinating, @sybillevz – especially about that contemporary of Bickham :)! As you know that is one of my very favourite topics ;D …

This is what Ambrose Heal wrote in his Bibliography of English Writing master's copybooks (p.xviii of the preface)

"Calligraphy, one would have thought, was a field in which woman would have excelled, but we find records of very few writing mistresses.
Ballard in his Memoirs of Several Ladies in Great Britain mentions Elizabeth Lucar (died 1537) as a skilful and curious calligrapher.
In the days of Queen Elizabeth and King James I, Esther Inglis was renowned for her fine writing and numbered members of the Royal families of England and Scotland among her patrons. Specimens of her exquisite work are presereved in libraries in this country and on the Continent.
In the Pepys collection is a trade card of a writing school kept by Elizabeth Penniston in Ave Maria Lane in the final decade of the 17th century.
Massey speaks of a contemporary of his, one Mary Johns, a proficient in the art, specimens of whose work were offered to George Bickham for inclusion in his Universal Penman (1733), "but upon some frivolous pretext, that offer was rejected". It is fairly safe to assume that Bickham, being employed by the leading wrting-masters to engrave their copy-books, was anxious to avoid the embarrassing situation which might have arisen with his clients if he had introduced competition from the other sex."

I also found a copy of a book by Marie Pavie, a Frenchwoman :
This is what Mediavilla says about her :
She was born in 1580 and published a book in 1608 called (my translation) "The first essay by the hand of Marie Pavie". Her style is reminiscent of Le Gangneur, even though it lacks in fluidity. This book is the first signed by a women that mentions a date.
This last information may only be true for France, as Maria Strick published her first book in 1607.

Mediavilla also cites :
Marie-Angélique Duru (born around 1680) : she was part of the "corporation des maîtres écrivains de Paris", and produced beautiful manuscripts (often on vellum). Most of her works have been lost.

Esther Inglis (1571-1624) : was born in Dieppe (FR) as Esther Langlois, but her father took his family to Edimburgh after the Massacre of Saint-Barthelemy (when protestant were killed in France). Esther was taught calligraphy and illumination by her mother (as part of her artistic education). In 1596, she married Bartholomeuw Kello, a gentleman and the Queen's minister.
She never taught writing in a school setting, but produced many artistic books for her patrons and taught her art to Henry Prince of Wales (older brother of Charles I). The Queen Elizabeth (I) and James I were among her patrons, one of Esther's manuscripts is dedicated to his son : prince Charles. A series of her manuscripts can be seen at the Royal Library in Stockholm, her major work is kept at the British Museum. Esther Inglis was considered as one of the best calligraphers of her time.

Mediavilla explains that few women were admitted to the corporation as the role of men and women was so well defined in society that few women ever managed to earn a living by holding a writing school, or even sold any "artistic productions".


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