Anna Maria van Schurman

February 19, 2021 2 Comments
Caspar Netscher, Christiaan Huygens (1671) (Haags Historisch Museum)

One of the most useful things an historian can do is to restore to us people from the past who have unjustly slipped from our collective memory.  Until recently an outstanding figure of early European science had vanished from sight almost completely, except in his home country.  In his lifetime, the second half of the seventeenth century, between the ages of Galileo and Newton, he was recognised as a polymath who made crucial contributions to the physical sciences.  Overshadowed by Newton, he later dropped from sight, and stayed there.  His name was Christiaan Huygens.

In his new book, Dutch light: Christiaan Huygens and the making of science in Europe, Hugh Aldersey-Williams makes a strong case for recognising Huygens and celebrating his achievements.  During his career – he lived in the middle of the Dutch ‘Golden Age’, between 1629 and 1695 – he developed the wave theory of light, correctly explained the rings of Saturn and discovered Titan, its largest moon, invented new telescopes and pendulum clocks, pioneered the use of mathematics in explaining mechanical forces, explored probability theory, and speculated about life on exoplanets.  He was lucky to live in the early, dynamic days of a new country, and he was lucky, too, in his birth: his father, Constantijn Huygens, was just as multi-talented.  He was a poet, musician, linguist and a politician, acting as adviser to the Stadtholder.  Like his father, Christiaan was a networker of genius, in constant contact with all the great scientific figures of his day, such as Pascal, Leibnitz, Cassini, Hooke and Newton, and he spent a period in Paris, where Louis XIV’s minister Colbert was keen to sponsor science to magnify the glory of the Sun King’s court.

Jacob van Campen, Susanna van Baerle and Constantijn Huygens (c.1635) (Mauritshuis)

Dutch light is a delight of a book, even for a non-scientist.  Aldersey-Williams, who wrote a similarly engaging biography of another polymath, Thomas Browne of Norwich, tells the story of Constantijn and Christiaan with immense skill, energy and reflection.  Like a good novelist he’s a master of the digression and aside.  So we learn how the great Delft microscopist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in 1667 ‘dashed from the conjugal bed and “before six beats of the pulse had intervened”, placed his own semen under the microscope for examination’ (his publication of the results made him famous).  It’s a shock to read that when William III invaded England in 1688 – Christiaan’s brother Constantijn came along as his adviser – he brought with him a massive army of 21,000 Dutch troops, transported on an fleet of ships four times the size of the Spanish armada one exactly a hundred years before.  The ‘Glorious Revolution’ was in reality a coup, backed by overwhelming force.

One of the most intriguing sections of Dutch light concerns some of the women friends of Constantijn, Christiaan’s father, after his wife died.  Aldersley-Williams says that a list of them ‘would have made a veritable directory of Low Countries pioneers of feminism’ if the word had not been anachronistic.  In the Dutch Golden Age women suffered at the hands of men as they always had.  But those with exceptional talents, if they were fortunate enough to receive encouragement, could occasionally get the chance to realise them.

The most remarkable of Constantijn’s friends – he called her his ‘most noble friend’ – was Anna Maria van Schurman.  She was born in Cologne in 1607 to wealthy parents – her father came from Antwerp and her mother was German – and the family, forced from their home by religious intolerance, settled in Utrecht in 1623.  She received the same education as her brothers, which was rare.  She could read by the age of four, and learned Latin from the age of eleven.  Later she added more than a dozen other languages, including Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Aramaic and Amharic, as well as European languages.  This is how she later recalled the beginning of her formal education in Latin:

Once, around my eleventh year – it was 1618 A.D. – it happened that my elder brothers, who were almost two and four years older than me, were being taught Latin by Father, but I was being taught French. As luck – or rather, divine providence – would have it, at one point they could not answer something in Latin, but I could. My father then decided that I might as well join my brothers in learning Latin. He strongly encouraged me, and I in turn wished to please and obey him above all, so I put in great effort to do my best. From then on, he started introducing me to the humanities.

Anna was equally talented with her hands.  She became proficient in paper sculpture, drawing, calligraphy, embroidery and wood-carving.  She achieved particular distinction in copper engraving, which she probably learned from the famous Utrecht engraver Magdalena van der Passe.  In 1643 she was made an honorary member of the painter’s guild, the Guild of St. Luke, in Utrecht.

Jan Lievens, Anna Maria van Schurman (1649) (National Gallery, London)

Anna was also an accomplished musician, and she was a poet.  She received an invitation to write a Latin poem for the inauguration of the University of Utrecht in 1636.  In the poem she made the pointed remark that she herself, as a woman, would not be able to study in the new university, under its rules of foundation (‘these sacred halls are inaccessible to women’).  The authorities took the hint, and she was allowed to attend lectures, though hidden from the gaze of male students by a screen or booth.  So she became, in all likelihood, the first female university student on the European continent.

Anna Maria van Schurman, Engraved self-portrait (1633)

Four years earlier Anna had engraved a portrait of herself as a kind of self-advert or business card for her work as an engraver.  Her dress is intricately detailed and her hair is frizzily full – all the better to show off her fine engraving skills.  In front of her is a cartouche with text, in which she says that if she can’t reproduce her own body perfectly then she can’t hope to portray others accurately.  (Constantijn, who had known her since 1633, responded in verse, scolding Anna playfully for failing to picture her hands, the secret to her craft success.)  At the centre of the picture is Anna’s face, with an expression that’s at once assertive, wary and humorous.

Anna, who by now had studied astronomy, mathematics, theology and geography, became the centre of a circle of Dutch intellectuals, as the so-called ‘Star of Utrecht’. She also corresponded, mostly in Latin and French, with scholars and others outside the Netherlands, including René Descartes, and especially with women, such as Queen Christina of Sweden and the Irishwoman Dorothea Moore.  This female Republic of Letters often discussed the education of women, one of Anna’s constant themes. 

Anna Maria Schurman, The learned maid (16590

Anna had many of her writings issued in print.  In 1659 she published in London a book, translated from her Latin original of 1641, with the title The learned maid; or, whether a maid may be a scholar?  Knowledge of languages and the Bible, she maintained in a series of strictly logical arguments, would bring women closer to God, but there was no reason why women could not become learned in other fields: ‘for it is manifest that Maids do actually learn any arts and science’. And: ‘whatsoever perfects and adorns the intellect of Man, that is fit and decent for a Christian woman’.

In 1669 Anna, always a pious woman, left Utrecht and attached herself to a new, radical Protestant sect, the Labadists.  She renounced her scholarship, and lost the support and friendship of some of her former friends, including Constantijn Huygens, who maintained a more conventional (or rationalist) perspective.  She died aged 70 in 1678 at the sect’s retreat at Wieuwerd, Friesland.  Anna had never married.  Throughout her life she was determined not to, to make sure that she would retain her freedom to pursue her own interests and commitments without hindrance.

Memory of her hasn’t been completely lost outside the Netherlands.  Judy Chicago, in her famous art installation The dinner party (1974-79), reserved a well-deserved place at the table for Anna Maria van Schurman.

Judy Chicago, The dinner party (1974-79) (Brooklyn Museum)

Comments (2)

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  1. Tom Dawkes says:

    Andrew, thanks for this post — I’m a bit late seeing it. The Dutch Golden Age has been an interest of mine for a long time, and it’s good to have Huygens father and son highlighted. But even better to have yet another forgotten women of science.

    Best wishes


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