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January 2017 – Early Modern Women and Transnationalism: The Case of Anna Maria van Schurman, ‘The Star of Utrecht’

January 2017 – Early Modern Women and Transnationalism: The Case of Anna Maria van Schurman, ‘The Star of Utrecht’

 Anne R. Larsen for the SSEMW Blog 

“Transnational scholarship is all the rage,” to borrow from Allyson Poska’s inaugural blog for SSEMW in September 2016. Rightly so. As students and scholars of early modern women, we are increasingly searching for the ways in which these women participated in a variety of transnational communities of letters, be they agents of empire, colonizers, noblewomen and royalty, women religious, writers, thinkers, scientists, or artists.

Jan Lievens, Van Schurman

A prime example of an early modern woman who crossed borders is the German-born Dutch linguist and scholar Anna Maria van Schurman (1607-78). Over the past two decades, much has been learned about the extraordinary amount of networking that ‘The Star of Utrecht,’ as she was known in the Republic of Letters, managed to welcome, initiate, and oversee in her extensive correspondence in several languages—Latin primarily, but also Greek, Hebrew, French, and Dutch, with citations in Arabic—with the male and female scholars, writers, artists, and royalty of Europe. Her letters reveal the breadth of her interests in theology, philosophy, medicine, literature, painting, sculpture, embroidery, and instrumental music. Her fame was due as well to being the first woman ever to attend officially a university (although she was hidden in a curtained booth), and to advocating, boldly, that women should be admitted into universities. The publications and translations of her letters, poems, and spiritual autobiography span several decades of her life. They await, still, a complete edition.

I shall focus here on the women with whom she established networks of communication and on how they saw her: as prodigy, celebrity and tourist attraction, exemplar, mentor, friend, soeur d’alliance, and sister in faith—she was a member of the Dutch Reformed Church until the last decade of her life when she joined the separatist household of the charismatic sectarian preacher Jean de Labadie. What makes Van Schurman so interesting is that she communicated with such a wide range of women intellectuals from so many countries. Readers of this blog will recognize many of them.


Van Schurman, The Learned Maid, 1659

*   *   *

In April 1641, the Anglo-Irish noblewoman Lady Dorothy Moore contacted Van Schurman. They had already met a little earlier through an exchange of letters in Hebrew. Now newly widowed, Moore was in need of spiritual direction. Van Schurman proffered her advice, and then expressed a startling thought. She imagined, she said, the possibility of some day living with Moore: ‘If, by God’s Grace, it were possible for us at some point to enjoy the happiness of living together in one and the same place, I have no doubt that we would be able to stimulate each other unto virtue, all the more in so great a harmony of affections and studies” (Van Schurman, Opuscula [1648], 196). In brief, she hoped to set up a household academy wherein to share their lives and studies.

This striking example illustrates beautifully Van Schurman’s networking ability, which she viewed as a means to furthering her scholarship and deep piety. Carol Pal argues compellingly in her Republic of Women (see Further Reading below) that the learned women in Van Schurman’s network were not marginalized or segregated from the larger international Republic of Letters; they formed an integral part of the religious, political, and scholarly networks of the seventeenth century. Van Schurman’s letters and poems, as well as the self-portraits she sent, indicate her desire to create a broadly-based circle of friendship with women communicating with her and, in the case of several, with one another.

Van Schurman’s house on Achter de Dom

Such an extensive network began in Van Schurman’s own country, the prosperous United Provinces of the Netherlands, known also as the Dutch Republic. From her base in the city of Utrecht, where she lived for over fifty years in the same house on Achter de Dom (in back of the cathedral), she became an exemplar, paradigmatically embodying two practices: first, her glowing scholarly reputation spilled over onto other learned women, elevating their reputation; and, second, her eagerness to connect with them, and they with her, spoke to their eagerness for mutual support and recognition as intellectuals. Johanna Hoobius’ poetic collection, Het Lof der Vrouwen [In Praise of Women, 1643], gives voice to Dutch learned women’s pride in being recognized through the praise given to Van Schurman: “Your splendor falls on us,” she writes, “in your bright rays we stand / The name we have in you will live on without end. / Yes, we feel honored, too, when you stand tall with men” (in Riet Schenkeveld-van der Dussen, 44). In short, they saw her as a trailblazer.

Map of the Netherlands

Thanks to her linguistic brilliance—she knew some fifteen languages[[i]]—and the publishing of both her inaugural Latin ode for the University of Utrecht (1636), as well as her vigorous defense of women’s higher learning (Paris, 1638), Van Schurman’s reputation crossed borders; she became internationally famous.

In the 1640s, she corresponded in French with the Catholic Marie Jars de Gournay, the Huguenot Princess Anne de Rohan, her Reformed soeur d’alliance Marie du Moulin, and three Catholic queens, Marie de Medici, Anne of Austria, and Henrietta Maria; in Latin and French, with Elisabeth of Bohemia; in Greek, with Bathsua Makin; in Hebrew and Latin, with Dorothy Moore; and in Latin, with the Danish scholar Birgitte Thott.

Christina of Sweden, 1653

Her name, fame, and writings were known to Louise-Marie de Gonzague-Nevers, Queen of Poland; Anne-Geneviève de Bourbon-Condé, Duchesse de Longueville; Madeleine de Scudéry; Anne-Marie d’Orléans, Duchesse de Montpensier; Christina of Sweden; and in the 1650s, and beyond to a set of equally transnational learned women such as Arcangela Tarabotti, Jacquette Guillaume, Françoise Bertaut de Motteville, Marguerite Buffet, Hannah Wooley, Antoinette Bourignon, Elizabeth Elstob, Sophia Brenner, Benigna von Solms-Laubach, Henrietta von Gersdorff, and Dorothea Loeberia. Emboldened by their allegiance to female networks, be they at court, in salons, mondain academies, correspondence networks, or schools, several of these women, who had either influenced her, as Marie de Gournay, or been inspired by her example, wrote in support of women’s education. Notable examples include Bathsua Makin, Dorothy Moore, Marie du Moulin, Marie de Gonzague-Nevers, and Hannah Wooley.[[ii]]

Van Schurman also played a role in introducing creative women to one another and to her influential male admirers and mentor. Marie du Moulin, for example, corresponded with Madeleine de Scudéry and Valentin Conrart in the querelle over Joan of Arc, a lively controversy (1646-47) in which Van Schurman relinquished her place to Du Moulin. Dorothy Moore, taking her cue from Van Schurman’s letters to her mentor André Rivet on a woman’s need for higher studies, corresponded with him on women’s roles in the church.

As an artist and accomplished musician, Van Schurman attracted talented women in the visual and musical arts. Mme Coutel, a local French painter, sent her samples of her art work; Magdalena van de Passe, from an illustrious family of engravers in Utrecht, trained her, leading her to engrave her own self-portraits and those of others. The Dutch-born English singer Utricia Ogle, Lady Swann, became a life-long friend whom she frequently accompanied on several musical instruments.

Finally, Van Schurman was particularly sensitive to the academic and artistic pursuits of her female contemporaries. She made sure to connect with the female members of the families of her epistolary male acquaintances. They were as important to her networking as their male kin. She sent samples of her art to the young daughters of her correspondents; five copies of her 1640 engraved self-portrait went to the family of Sir Simonds D’Ewes, the English antiquary and member of Parliament; John Morris, an English Anglo-Saxon scholar, had a sample of his daughter’s art work sent to her, to which she reciprocated with a sample of her own.

Bathsua Makin, ca. 1645

She also took an interest in guiding the efforts of her female correspondents in their learning and publishing. For instance, she encouraged Marie du Moulin to learn Hebrew; she expressed strong interest in an essay on virtue on which Bathsua Makin was working in the mid 1640s; and she taught the art of poetry to Sara Nevius, a sister in faith, whose meditations on the spiritual life were published posthumously.

Even in the last decade of her life, when at the age of sixty-two Van Schurman had moved into the Labadist household, she did not give up her networking practices. But she pursued them differently. She was drawn to the small separatist community for its familial friendship among upper- and lower-ranked women who valued above all the spiritual life of Christian simplicity taught by Labadie. These were not just elite learned women.

Elisabeth of Bohemia

In those years, when she did correspond with learned women it was primarily on behalf of her dissenting household. In the course of the community’s nomadic existence, she renewed her correspondence with Elisabeth of Bohemia, abbess since 1667 at the Lutheran Damenstift abbey at Herford, to ask permission to find refuge with her, which Elisabeth granted; she also corresponded with Elisabeth’s sister, the future Electress of Hanover Sophia von der Pfalz, and the German Pietist Lady Johanna Eleonora Peterson on the spiritual life. Upon Labadie’s death in 1674 at Altona, near Hamburg, she contacted the English divine John Owen concerning a new place of refuge in England. Had she succeeded, notes David Norbrook in his “Autonomy and the Republic of Letters” (276), she would have connected with the Lucy Hutchinson, a close ally of Owen.

Van Schurman’s fame eventually reached the American colonies. The Puritan minister Cotton Mather, in his Ornaments for the Daughters of Zion (1692), includes her in a section on American “authoresses” alongside the poet Anne Bradstreet. In his Magnalia Christi Americana, Or, the Ecclesiastical History of New England (1702), he defends women’s capacity for literary pursuits, praising Van Schurman as his most eminent example.

Van Schurman’s world, her correspondents, friends, and peers, all thought and networked transnationally. They frequently travelled and moved to other countries. As members of the far-flung Republic of Letters, they mirrored its intellectual practices. In so doing they were integral to the movement of ideas across borders. We do well to attend to the remarkable diversity of their lives and writings.


Anne R. Larsen is Lavern and Betty De Pree Professor Emerita of French at Hope College. Recent publications include Anna Maria van Schurman, ‘The Star of Utrecht’: The Educational Vision and Reception of a Savante (2016), and the SSEMW-awarded collections and edition, Early Modern Women and Transnational Communities of Women (with Julie Campbell, 2009), Encyclopedia of Women in the Renaissance: Italy, France, and England (with Diana Robin and Carole Levin, 2007), and From Mother and Daughter: Poems, Dialogues, and Letters of Les Dames des Roches (2006). She is currently completing with Steve Maiullo a critical edition and translation of Van Schurman’s manuscript letters and poems for “The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe” series.

Further Reading

Baar, Mirjam de. ‘“God has chosen you to be a crown of glory for all women!’ The International Network of Learned Women Surrounding Anna Maria van Schurman.” In ‘I have heard about you.’ Foreign Women’s Writing Crossing the Dutch Border: From Sappho to Selma Lagerlöf. Ed. Suzan van Dijk et al., 108-35. Hilversum: Uitgeverij Verloren, 2004.

Beek, Pieta van. The First Female University Student: Anna Maria van Schurman (1636). Utrecht: Igitur, Utrecht Publishing & Archiving Services, 2010.

—– ‘Herrezen uit de as’: verbrande lofgeschriften van Rotger zum Bergen voor Anna Maria van Schurman (1649-1655). Schurmanniana-reeks no. 4. Provily Pers, Ridderkerk, 2015.

Larsen, Anne R. Anna Maria van Schurman, ‘The Star of Utrecht’: The Educational Vision and Reception of a Savante. Series: Women and Gender in the Early Modern World. London: Routledge, 2016.

Lee, Bo Karen. Sacrifice and Delight in the Mystical Theologies of Anna Maria van Schurman and Madame Jeanne Guyon. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014.

Norbrook, David. “Autonomy and the Republic of Letters: Michèle Le Dœuff, Anna Maria van Schurman, and the History of Women Intellectuals,” Australian Journal of French Studies 40 (2003): 275-87.

Pal, Carol.  Republic of Women: Rethinking the Republic of Letters in the Seventeenth Century.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Riet Schenkeveld-van der Dussen, “Women’s Writing from the Low Countries, 1575-1875.” In Women’s Writing from the Low Countries, 1200-1975. A Bilingual Anthology. Ed. Lia van Gemert et al., 39-63. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010.

Schurman, Anna Maria van. Opuscula Hebræa, Græca, Latina, Gallica. Prosaica & Metrica. Leiden: Elzevier, 1648 (also 1650, 1652, and 1749).

—–. Whether a Christian Woman Should be Educated and Other Writings from Her Intellectual Circle. Ed. and trans. Joyce L. Irwin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

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


[i] Van Schurman knew both ancient and oriental languages (Latin, Greek, Biblical and Rabbinic Hebrew, Arabic, Chaldeic [or Aramaic], Syriac, Persian, Samaritan, and Ethiopian), as well as six modern languages (French, German, Italian, Flemish or Dutch, English, and Spanish). Although none of her Dutch contemporaries refer to her knowledge of Spanish, at least three non-Dutch intellectuals, Jean le Laboureur, Father Louis Jacob, and Rotger zum Bergen list Spanish as one of the languages she knew. On Le Laboureur, and Jacob, see Van Schurman’s Opuscula (1648), 340; 348; on Bergen, see Beek 2015, 57. Bergen knew Van Schurman’s cousin Anna Margaretha van Schurman, who could have informed him.

[ii] Makin published An Essay to Revive the Ancient Education of Gentlewomen (1673); Moore wrote a tract, ‘Of the Education of Girls’ (ca. 1650), no longer extant; and Du Moulin published anonymously De l’éducation des enfants (1654, 1679). According to Francesco Clodoveo Maria Pentolini in Le donne illustre (Livorno, 1776) (cited in Stevenson, Women Latin Poets, 365), Gonzague is credited with a Latin dissertation on whether women should be learned. Wooley, the supposed author of The Gentlewomans Companion; or, a Guide to the Female Sex (1673), accords the greatest praise to Van Schurman in her catalog of savantes.

2 thoughts on “January 2017 – Early Modern Women and Transnationalism: The Case of Anna Maria van Schurman, ‘The Star of Utrecht’

  • Maureen E. Mulvihill

    Quick addendum to “Further Reading” list, above. And plenteous thanks to Anne Larsen for this useful, beautifully assembled blog post. But a few content & bibliographical additions from this earlier Van Schurman devotee & collector ~

    May I but add that the first published biographical / career article on the great Dutch prodigy, Anna Maria Van Schurman, in a (modern) feminist reference work, is my profile in Janet Todd’s “Dictionary of British & American Women Writers, 1660-1800” (NJ: Rowman & Littlefield, 1987; cloth & paper, 344 pp). My article, about 1500 words, appears on pp 311-312; with Van Schurman self-portrait (Centraal Mus., Utrecht) on front pastedown, cloth edition, third selection. In Todd’s acknowledgments, she refers to the curious inclusion of Van Schurman in such a compilation (see xxi), but she generously honoured my (contributor’s) request to include Van Schurman, owing to her important ideological (and rhetorical) influence on early English protofeminists, esp Bathsua Makin, one of her many correspondents; likewise, Lady Anne Hudson, who played a role in Clement Barksdale’s English edition (1659) of Van Schurman’s famous “Dissertatio” (1641). Van Schurman has been a heroine of mine since the 1970s, and my rare book collection includes a complete copy of her “Opuscula” (vellum, 364 pp), with self-portrait frontis. This is a most unusual figure, esp her movements & decisions (and late-life) liberation after the death of her parents; she then had the ‘space’ and freedom to strike out in new directions, with, e.g., her attachment to the Labadist (pietistic) community where she intersected with another remarkable woman in my personal feminist litany: botanical illustrator, Maria Sibylla Merian. Van Schurman’s final (recorded) work is her “Eukleria” (1673), on Labadism, an intriguing text recording her late-life disavowal of scholarly pursuits as egotistical & self-serving. May that late work of hers summon more attention from devotees.

    Also in “Further Reading”, specialists will miss the omission of Una (Pope-Hennessy) Birch’s “Van Schurman” (1909), a foundational early biography (seldom acknowledged, sadly). ///

    We are pleased to see the recent resurgence of interest, esp from a transnational / intercultural vantage, in this remarkably gifted, forward-looking, and truly ‘enlightened’ 17thC woman.

    In the spirit,

    Maureen E. Mulvihill, PhD. Scholar & Collector.
    Elected member (1992-), Princeton Research Forum, Princeton NJ.
    Formerly, Associate Fellow, Institute for Research in History, NYC.
    13th January 2017.

  • Julie Campbell

    A very interesting essay, Anne, especially regarding the connections you highlight. Van Schurman is such an important transnational figure!

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