Medieval Nuns
DeAgostini/Getty Images
St Angela Merici (1474-1540) teaching a lesson to fellow nuns.

A proper education was difficult to come by during the Middle Ages for men and especially women. If women wanted to receive a higher education, they had to reach for a higher calling—and join a convent.

By the time the Roman Empire fell in the 5th century, fighting skills and military prowess had superseded education as more critical. While social and legislative norms during the Middle Ages were heavily rooted in Roman and Germanic origins, the institution of education was abandoned for a time. However, as the Church began increasing in power, it filled the void by developing an education system for religious purposes.

Soon, monasteries and convents became centers for learning, and it was mostly the privileged—young men from nobility and the upper middle class—who were able to receive a thorough education. During this time, women’s education was not a priority, as women were believed to be intellectually inferior.

Affluent women were required to have some literacy during the Middle Ages, but their learning was intended only to prepare them for being respectable wives and mothers. Higher learning for nuns, on the other hand, was encouraged because they were required to comprehend biblical teachings. So it was no coincidence that many of the earliest female intellectuals were nuns.

Some convent offerings included reading and writing in Latin, arithmetic, grammar, music, morals, rhetoric, geometry and astronomy, according to a 1980 article by Shirley Kersey in (Vol. 58, No. 4). Spinning, weaving and embroidery were also a large part of a nun’s education and labor, writes Kersey, particularly among nuns who came from affluent families. Nuns who came from lesser means were expected to do more arduous labor as part of their religious life.

Nuns who committed themselves to the highest scholarship were treated as equals to men of their social rank. Honored as heads of an abbey, they had more power than their female contemporaries.

Juliana Morell
Public Domain
Sister Juliana Morell.

Sister Juliana Morell: First Woman to Receive a University Degree

Among the earliest nun scholars was Juliana Morell, a 17th-century Spanish Dominican nun who is believed to be the first woman in the Western world to earn a university degree. Born in Barcelona on February 16, 1594, Morell was a young prodigy, and her distinguished banker father encouraged her to obtain the highest education, according to a 1941 article by S. Griswold in Hispanic Review (Vol. 9, No. 1). 

A few years after Morell’s mother died, her father fled with his then seven-year-old daughter to Lyon, France, to escape murder charges. It was there that Morell continued her education, learning a variety of disciplines: Latin, Greek, Hebrew, mathematics, rhetoric as well as law and music.

When she was 12, Morell publicly defended her theses on logic and morality. She continued enriching her education by studying civil law, physics and canon, and soon after in Avignon, defended her law thesis in front of distinguished guests of the papacy.

Although it’s not known which body granted Morell her degree, she received a law doctorate in 1608 at the age of 14. In the fall of that year, Morell entered a Dominican convent in Avignon and three years later, took her final vows in the summer of 1610, eventually rising to the rank of a prioress.

During her 30-year tenure as a nun, Morell published a variety of works including: a Latin-to-French translation of Frior Vincent Ferrer’s Spiritual Life (1617), a manual entitled "Spiritual Exercises for Eternity and a Small Preparatory Exercise for the Holy Profession" (1637), a historical text on her convent in San Práxedes Avignon, as well as poetry in Latin and French. Morell died on June 26, 1653.