The Reformation changed the landscape of faith in Europe and worldwide. Plenty has been written on the history and stages of the Reformation, and I will not try to rehash what has been said already by those with a better understanding of the topic. But for the context of this post, I will summarize the Reformation briefly.
The Reformation was a movement in the 15th Century, in Europe, where preachers and thinkers began to move away from the traditional structures of the Catholic Church, towards an idea of the priesthood of all believers, with a focus on the Bible being available to everyone in their own language, and of salvation coming through faith in Jesus rather than the offices of the church.
How did this massive shift affect the lives of women? The question of whether it was good or bad for women is too simplistic. I want to explore how it changed things – then we have a starting point to evaluate the merits and drawbacks of this new way of Christian life.
This is not an academic essay, but I will list at the end of this piece the main books and websites that helped my thinking. These would also be good starting points if you wanted to explore this subject further.
The introduction of the concept of a ‘priesthood of all believers’ was a huge one. This was the idea that all believers had direct access to God through Jesus Christ. All people could have direct access to God through prayer and reading his Word (the Bible). While previously people’s relationship with God was mediated through a male priest, now all were equal before God through grace. Women were being encouraged, for the first time, to read the Bible for themselves. With this came an increased level of education and general literacy for women.
In terms of identity, the Catholic Church had previously portrayed women as saints such as the Virgin Mary, or as temptresses and the root of sin, like Eve. Now, women were grasping a new identity for themselves – redeemed children of God, part of his church family and valued as believers.
In addition, the Reformation placed a stronger emphasis on the whole church body being the ‘bride of Christ’ – a female role, in relationship to Christ Jesus as the bridegroom. This raises other ideas about the different roles in marriage – the bride as subordinate to the husband, the head of the wife.
The Reformation changed the nature of Education drastically, especially for girls. Previously, the school system of the Middle Ages relied on parishes or convents running schools. But the Reformers put forth the notion of unrestricted education that was open to all young people, regardless of gender or social class. This transferred the responsibility of education to the political authorities. There was also a new focus on the importance of family education, which gave women a new role as they began to take responsibility for educating their children in Scripture and doctrine. Luther in particular believed it was the parents’ responsibility to bring up their children to become well-read Christians, and that domestic education and schooling went hand in hand for the process of raising educated believers.
This approach to education meant many girls were attending school for the first time, and the question of how to approach the teaching of girls was being asked by more and more people. One interesting sign of the new interest in female education was that people were writing and publishing books on the subject.
Luther and other Reformers felt that girls as well as boys should learn not only religion but also history, classical and modern languages, literature, music, and mathematics. Programs that balanced work and study were proposed for students without academic ambitions. Students were encouraged to spend part of the day studying the rest of their time learning a trade or skills to help them in keeping a home and raising children.
Some Reformers and schools also encouraged intellectually-qualified girls to study the liberal arts, like their brothers; at this time there was also a need for female teachers. However, Luther’s focus on education for girls was primarily to train them to be well rounded mothers and wives. We will look more at the Reformers’ attitudes towards women in the next section of this series.
The Reformation placed an emphasis on the family unit as a household of faith. Marriage was viewed as a tool designed by God for the sanctification of Christians. In some ways, this elevated the traditional roles of wife and mother as supremely valuable and integral to the life of the home. Virginity and chastity, while still valued, were no longer idealized and glorified. The role of women in the family was acknowledged and praised in new ways, which some have interpreted as being liberating for women.
The flipside, however, is that choosing a celibate life dedicated to God became much harder to pursue, and was much less valued. No longer was the convent and veil a choice for women who did not wish to marry. In some ways, the changes made life more restrictive for women, in that there was less choice available.
Marriage and motherhood carried intrinsic risks for women; death in childbirth was a reality, as well as the heartbreak of infant mortality. Nuns had traditionally lived longer, not only by avoiding childbirth, but by avoiding the diseases of the masses.
For the ordinary women, the Reformation brought about many changes to their lives, from their identity as children of God, to their increased access to education and the new value placed on their roles in the home. However, things were still a long way from being ‘equal,’ and there were certain disadvantages and restriction of choices that came with these social changes. I’m going to keep exploring wider aspects of how the Reformation changed things for women in the next few parts of this series.
Assess the Effects of the Reformation on the Lives of Women in Sixteenth-Century Europe: https://tudorblogger.wordpress.com/2013/10/26/assess-the-effects-of-the-reformation-on-the-lives-of-women-in-sixteenth-century-europe/
Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Christian History – Diana Lynn Severance
Reform and Conflict: From the Medieval World to the Wars of Religion – Rudolph W. Heinze
The European Reformations – Carter Lindberg
The Education of Women in the Reformation (History of Education Quarterly) by Lowell Green
The Protestant Education in the 16th Century: https://www.museeprotestant.org/en/notice/the-protestant-education-in-the-xvith-century/
The Influence of the Protestant Reformation on Education (Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences) by