Renaissance and Reformation Anna Maria van Schurman
Anne Larsen, Bo Karen Lee
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0399


Anna Maria van Schurman (b. 1607–d. 1678) was regarded throughout the seventeenth century as the most learned woman not only of the Netherlands but also of Europe. She was “the Star of Utrecht,” “the Tenth Muse,” “a miracle of her sex.” As the first woman to attend non-officially a university, she was also the first to advocate, boldly, that women should be admitted into universities. A brilliant linguist, she mastered at least fourteen languages and was the first Dutch woman to seek publication of her correspondence. Her letters in several languages to the intellectual men and women of her time reveal the breadth of her interests in theology, philosophy, medicine, education, literature, painting, sculpture, embroidery, and instrumental music. Van Schurman advocated higher studies for women in a Latin scholastic disputation and in two Latin letters to her mentor, the French Calvinist theologian André Rivet (b. 1572–d. 1651). Her letters, with Rivet’s reply, were first published in 1638 in Paris in an unauthorized version, and again, with her treatise and exchanges with other scholars, in Leiden in 1641. In 1646, the French literary historian and poet Guillaume Colletet (b. 1598–d. 1659) translated these letters into French, publishing them in Paris under the title Question célèbre: S’il est necessaire, ou non, que les Filles soient sçavantes (A famous question: Whether it is necessary or not for girls to be learned). Van Schurman’s treatise on women’s learning was translated into English in 1659 by the educator Clement Barksdale (b. 1609–d. 1687), as The Learned Maid or, Whether a Maid May Be a Scholar? In 1639 she also completed a treatise, De Vitae Termino (On the temporal limits of life), on the roles that God and physicians play at the end of human life. Her most famous work—Opuscula Hebræa, Græca, Latina, Gallica: Prosaica & Metrica (Minor works in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and French: In prose and verse)—appeared in 1648 at the height of her fame. In 1666, van Schurman met Jean de Labadie (b. 1610–d. 1674), the founder of the Labadist community, and her life was radically reoriented. She devoted herself to a new form of piety, one shaped by Catholic mysticism in addition to her Calvinist background. She continued her writing, however, arguing in her mature treatise of 1673, Eukleria, seu Meliores Partis Electio (Eukleria, or choosing the better part, referring to Mary’s choice, Luke 10:41–42) that her former ways of knowing God had left her spiritually bankrupt. Her previous theological teachers disowned her for her choices, but she writes of “joy unspeakable” in her new community. The Eukleria is a fine display of her erudition, marshaled to demonstrate the very limitations of learnedness, in favor of a life more singularly dedicated to God. We thank Dr. Pieta van Beek for her help on an earlier version of the section on Editions and Translations.

General Overviews

The most useful and broadest general overview is the collection edited by a team of Dutch scholars that was translated into English in Baar, et al. 1996 under the title Choosing the Better Part. Other overviews include selected previously published articles on van Schurman gathered in Volume 199 of the series Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800 (Trudeau and Schoenberg 2012) and in Stevenson 2005. In addition, an online blog, compiled and continuously updated by van Beek, offers a useful overview of van Schurman’s works and of secondary literature on her. Early Modern Women: Lives, Texts, Objects, a blog by van Elk, features the artistic contributions of relatively little known early modern women, including those of van Schurman. RECIRC Project, with its focus on early modern Ireland and England, gives a good understanding of contemporary anglophone women’s writings in van Schurman’s time period, and Early Modern Letters Online (EMLO) has an inventory of van Schurman’s 239 extant letters. The online Project Vox 2020 features an extensive overview of van Schurman as an early modern woman philosopher.

  • Baar, Mirjam de, Machteld Löwensteyn, Marit Monteiro, and A. Agnes Sneller, eds. Choosing the Better Part: Anna Maria van Schurman, 1607–1678. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic, 1996.

    A translation of Anna Maria van Schurman (1607–1678): Een uitzonderlijk geleerde vrouw (Zutphen, The Netherlands: Walburg Pers, 1992). A fine introduction to van Schurman. The nine articles include a historical survey of her reception since the seventeenth century, analyses of her disputation on women’s learning, artistic education, Dutch poems, Eukleria as autobiography, “Reformation” of philosophy, choice of Labadism, and her contributions to the social and literary life of her time. A chronology is included. Early Modern Letters Online, available online, created by the Cultures of Knowledge Project from Oxford University Press (EMLO), includes an inventory of van Schurman’s 239 extant letters by Samantha Sint Nicolaas titled The Correspondence of Anna Maria van Schurman.

  • Project Vox. Anna Maria van Schurman. Durham, NC: Department of Philosophy, Duke University, 2020.

    Features van Schurman’s biography, the titles and summaries of her published and unpublished writings, current primary and secondary sources, a summary of her philosophy, a correspondence guide, her connections, and several online resources, with numerous illustrations of her art works and writings.

  • The RECIRC Project: The Reception and Circulation of Early Modern Women’s Writing, 1550–1700. Galway: National University of Ireland, Galway.

    The RECIRC Project, running from 2014 to 2019 and based at the National University of Ireland, Galway, investigates four broad topics: Transnational Religious Networks, the International Republic of Letters, Manuscript Miscellany as Instrument of Circulation and Site of Reception, and Book/Manuscript Ownership.

  • Stevenson, Jane. Women Latin Poets: Language, Gender and Authority, from Antiquity to the Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198185024.001.0001

    Contains a useful chapter titled “Anna Maria van Schurman and Other Women Scholars of Northern and Central Europe” (pp. 336–367), which situates van Schurman among the many learned women of her period.

  • Trudeau, Lawrence, and Thomas J. Schoenberg. “Anna Maria van Schurman, 1607–: German-Born Dutch Poet, Philosopher, Theologian, Artist, and Linguist.” In Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800. Vol. 199. Edited by Lawrence Trudeau and Thomas J. Schoenberg, 245–310. Detroit: Gale, 2012.

    Includes essays on van Schurman’s life, works, influence of her mentor André Rivet, participation in the Republic of Letters, interconnections between van Schurman and her contemporaries, the French reception of her letters on women’s education, a comparison with poets Anne Bradstreet and Sor Juana Inès de la Cruz, the epistolary exchange with Marie de Gournay, and van Schurman and the formal education of women in Europe in the Early Modern period.

  • van Beek, Pieta. Anna Maria van Schurman (1607–78).

    This blog includes Pieta van Beek’s many publications on van Schurman, her lectures and interviews in Europe and South Africa from 1990 on, publications by other scholars, and portraits and images of van Schurman.

  • van Elk, Martine. Early Modern Women: Lives, Texts, Objects.

    This well-designed and illustrated blog highlights the contributions of early modern women from different countries, nationalities, cultures, and religions. Two entries, “Capable of Bruising a Letter: Early Modern Women’s Calligraphy” (February 2018), and “The Delicate Hand: Female Engravers” (February 2017) feature van Schurman.

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