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Girls' education under the Ancien Régime


For a long time, historians have considered that in matters ofgirls education, the royal house of education of St Cyr was both an example and uniqueness within a society where the educational priorities go to the male sex. However, recent historical research on the subject has shown the desire to educate girls as well, but this education extends far beyond the nobility since it also affects the most disadvantaged sections of society.

The establishment of female education

The first writings on the need to educate girls

During the Renaissance, the Spanish humanist Jean-Louis Vivès affirmed in 1523, in his book The Instruction of the Christian Woman, that education was necessary for young girls, wives and widows. However, it only grants them a very specific education, in which domestic work takes precedence over reading and writing, and without Latin - then a real key to access to knowledge.

Erasmus follows: Girls must be educated, at least because men and women are called to live together. Rabelais pushes this principle to the point of utopia: the two sexes, equally free and educated, mingle in perfect harmony at the abbey of Thélème.

Institutions aiming to provide education to girls and boys then began to emerge like the General Alms in Lyon, which from 1533 offered differentiated education for girls and boys. Unfortunately, this institution was closed at the end of the 16th century.

The Protestant Reformation

The other wave of the principle of women's access to culture spread with the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation indeed affirms the universal priesthood of the faithful: the religious formation of individuals is therefore essential. It is based on reading the Bible to enlighten the faith of the faithful, to know and personally verify the fundamental teachings of the Christian faith.

Luther wanted popular schools to multiply, for both girls and boys, so that everyone could learn to read and thus have direct access to Scripture, translated into the vulgar language, the basis of his doctrine. He thus elevates the vocation of the schoolmaster to the height of a priesthood.

Philippe Melenchthon, friend and collaborator of Luther, will lay the foundations for a new school system. The one inherited from the Middle Ages, where schools most often depended on parishes and convents, has been abandoned. In the States passed to the Reformation, the school responsibility is entrusted to the political authorities, princes and magistrates. The Reformation lays the foundations of the right to know for every man. This also applies to girls. From 1530, a girls' school was created in Wittenberg. In Geneva too, great importance is given to education. Children, boys and girls, benefit from public elementary education and above all free.

In France, the teaching of reading and writing is concomitant with the dissemination of the doctrine of the reformers. It will organize itself quickly by descending from the educated layers (clerics, magistrates, students, printers) to various social groups: craftsmen and merchants, often literate by necessity, going as far as the peasantry. Consistories hire schoolmasters or regents who teach girls as well as boys. In small communities, the pastor is responsible for teaching. The practice of reading and writing will give the Reformed a cultural advance that will last in the following centuries, especially as this teaching is done in French in all regions.

Catholic awareness

Faced with the progress of the Reformation, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) placed the Catholic response on the very ground of the adversary, that of the instruction of the faithful. Adults must be taught, of course, but above all children, who guarantee the sustainability of religious reconquest. Catechesis is organized, based on a minimum of literacy sufficient to escape the mere approximate repetition of its lessons, which supposes a minimum of schooling. Inspired by the ideal of a society fully acquired to the correct doctrine, Catholic, a wave of initiatives developed at the turn of the 16th-17th centuries, specifically centered on female education, because the little girl seemed the best. target to achieve this ideal.

The dedicated congregations, providing free schools for poor girls and / or paying boarding houses for wealthy young ladies, were hard at work from the early years of the Grand Siècle. Strong female personalities, lay or religious, associated with members of the clergy, preside over the installations of their establishments in the cities. In Bordeaux, Jeanne de Lestonnac, niece of Montaigne, a good living winegrower, mother of five children and a widow on the threshold of fifty, founded the Compagnie de Marie-Notre-Dame in 1607. In Paris, Mesdames Acarie and de Sainte-Beuve oversaw the establishment of two Ursuline convents, in 1610 then in 1621, while in Annecy, Baroness Jeanne de Chantal (grandmother of the Marquise de Sévigné) at alongside the local bishop, François de Sales, founded the Visitation in 1610. If the Visitandines only held conventual boarding schools, the Ursulines provided boarding and a free external school where they were, without mixing the clientele. The same double recruitment for the Notre-Dame congregation, born in Lorraine in 1615, from the combined efforts of Alix Le Clerc and parish priest Pierre Fourier. For their part, the Daughters of Charity instituted in 1633 by Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac teach poor little girls and care for the sick.

The devout elite who materially support the swarming of congregations dedicated to the charitable education of girls is deeply convinced of the magnitude of the stakes of their project. It is true that at least by the number of children received, the impact of these institutions is considerable.

Female pedagogy

The subjects taught

These excessive spiritual ambitions are matched by much more limited educational ambitions. At least in the 17th century, it was not uncommon for schoolgirls in charitable classes to be introduced only to reading, the only one necessary for learning catechism. Learning to read and to write are initiations then dissociated in time, one reads first, but all the teachers are not able to show the writing. A brief stint in school therefore provides, in addition to religious education everywhere, a priority, certainly rudiments of reading, but not necessarily lessons in writing or arithmetic. The time left available for devotional exercises is often used for needlework that the community sells to supplement its budget. These simple manual works are supposed to enable the daughters of the people to earn their living honestly, in trades practiced away from the dangers of the street, in a shop or workshop, under the guidance of a mistress. The thread and the needles are also found in the classes of convents, but this time for the purpose of diverting the pupils - who will not have to provide for their own needs - from idleness.

The boarders, obviously at a good school at the convent for religious instruction, receive "general" education (reading / writing / arithmetic), possibly supplemented by lessons in history and geography. In pension, this base can be supplemented by private lessons - expensive - of teachers intervening at the request of the parents and composing an "à la carte" program giving pride of place to the arts of pleasure such as dance or music.

While during the seventeenth century many girls' schools opened their doors in the cities, pedagogical reflection concerning them did not take hold until the last quarter of the century.

Education plans for girls

In the 1680s, three authors designed education plans for girls. Before that, the question of the knowledge of women made the beautiful evenings of the salons and all literary genres seized upon it. With Molière and his Précieuses ridicules (1659), then his Femmes savantes (1672), we make fun of the learned woman. Women of letters and influence like Mlle de Scudéry or Mme de Sévigné defend a just science for their gender, while the controversy over the comparative merits of men and women rages on.

The abbot and historian Claude Fleury published in 1685 his Treatise on the choice and the method of studies, based on his dozen years of educational practice as sub-preceptor of the Children of France. Fleury offers girls an educational plan in which religious instruction, more moral than dogmatic, keeps first place; after which the girls learn to "think immediately and to reason solidly" by means of a simplified logic, and study a grammar applied to the writings which they may have to write, an equally practical arithmetic, a little jurisprudence (always useful when you become a widow), and a basic pharmacopoeia. As for the "science of the household", Fleury wants to introduce "a little more reason and reflection", because small-mindedness rules her too often. No further study is necessary, and more scholarly girls would sink into vanity.

Two years after Fleury, Fénelon in turn took an interest in the subject of the education of girls (1687), in a more mature and somewhat more permissive treatise. The work is intended for the Duc de Beauvillier, of which Fénelon is the spiritual director, and the Duchess, parents of nine girls, before fathering four boys. "Nothing is more neglected than the education of girls" immediately accuses the author, in a critical work, curious about girls from their early childhood. Fenelon, integrating the inferiority and weakness of the second sex, builds a program intended to remedy them, because, on the one hand, "the weaker they are, the more important it is to strengthen them", and on the other hand "the bad. education of women does more harm than that of men, since the disorders of men often come from the poor education they received from their mothers, and from the passions that other women inspired in them in an older age ” . The study plan is adjusted to the fate of the little girl, a good nun or a good wife and mother. In addition to the religious and moral education that goes without saying, domestic economics and a range of secular knowledge a little better stocked than at Fleury. For Fénelon, grammar, arithmetic, "the main rules of justice", literature, history (Greek, Roman, from France and neighboring countries), Latin, music and painting (on condition of be well balanced and directed) find a place in girls' education. Madame de Maintenon will implement this program with the 250 young noblewomen, but destitute, extraction that she welcomes to the Royal House of Saint Cyr, founded in 1686.

The third program, composed at the end of the Grand Siècle, in the 1690s, but published only in the 18th century, bears a feminine signature since it is the Avis d'une mère à son fille de la Marquise de Lambert, given in at the same time as his Opinions from a mother to her son, and like them marked by the influence of Fénelon. The additions to the program nevertheless reveal the open-mindedness of the Marquise, who opts for learning the Latin language, because "she opens the door to all sciences" and her education plan is issued from presupposition of an intellectual inferiority specific to the second sex. Of course, Madame de Lambert draws ideas from Fénelon, but she also offers some very personal ones, disturbing for many.

An atypical example: the small schools for poor girls in Lyon

A) Charles Démia

Lyonnais priest originally from Bourg, Charles Démia will devote himself to the education of poor children and found in 1666 in Lyon, the congregation of the brothers of Saint Charles, whose first school will open in 1667. His work is intended for both girls and girls. to boys and intends to educate poor children in the city in order to give them a chance to find honest work and therefore lift them out of poverty.

In 1675, two free schools for girls were established and the community of the Sisters of Saint Charles was founded in 1680 to recruit teachers.

B) Learning that is useful

In 1688, Charles Démia published the regulations which set out his pedagogical doctrine. His idea is to take children out of a social class sometimes forcing young girls to resort to prostitution to get out. Teaching in schools is therefore mainly religious, but in addition to reading and writing, they teach small manual works and counting in order to be able to keep the accounts.

We also introduce into the classes what will later be called mutual education. That is to say that the most capable and studious students will be responsible for supervising and rehearsing the lessons of their comrades. The school is also divided into eight classes, which are called bands, in order to facilitate learning.

We read first in Latin, since all the letters are pronounced and we proceed to an alphabetical method. Learning to write is done using examples to copy. The teaching of arithmetic is also included in the program even if no source can confirm whether it was really carried out in schools.

This system is so successful among the working classes that soon new small schools appear, but which are not approved by the Bureau which has the monopoly on these creations and the surveillance is organized through inspections which take place by surprise. in the establishments and who ensure the proper application of the regulations put in place by Charles Démia.

C) Possible further studies

Much more than providing them with simple tools to get by in life, Charles Démia's institution offers girls a real professional education at the end of their studies. Founded in 1721 by Pierrette Cheneviere, the first working school intended to enable girls to earn a living while protecting them from the dangers of the streets and poverty. The girls will then be able to continue their education in order to deepen the lessons already given in small schools, but above all to carry out manual work, especially sewing, to improve them for the world of work.

This school seems to arouse a real enthusiasm on the part of the Office which wants to create two or three more in the rest of the city in order to meet the needs of the 300 girls who leave small schools each year. However, admission is not automatic, it is the parents of the students who must make the formalities with the Bureau in order to enroll their daughters in these working schools.

The principle of these schools is relatively innovative for the time. These are self-sufficient schools. Indeed, the works provided to the young girls are the fruit of orders and are consequently paid to the two sisters who manage the working school. This money must also be used for the current expenses of the school (charcoal, wood, wires), but also for the salaries of the two teachers. The rest is divided between the students according to their class. This money is managed by the school's deputy, herself supervised by the “treasurer” of the School Office.

Lasting four years, this education is a real asset for these poor girls since it promises them social development or the possibility of finding a job more easily.

As we have seen, far from being limited to Saint Cyr, the education of girls is in fact more complex and is established according to a network parallel to that of male education. Relatively innovative for the time, the system of small schools, which can be found in several urban areas, allows poor girls to access rudiments of education sometimes similar to those of girls from more affluent backgrounds.

For further

- Martine SONNET, The education of girls in the days of enlightenment, CNRS edition, Paris, 2011 (1st edition in 1987)
- Roger CHARTIER, Marie-Madeleine COMPERE and Dominique JULIA, Education in France from the 16th to the 18th century, Sedes, Paris, 1976
- On Protestant education
- Charles Demia
- National Museum of Education


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