van Schurmann, Anna Maria (1607–1678)

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van Schurmann, Anna Maria (1607–1678)

Dutch scholar and artist. Name variations: Anna Maria van Schuurman or Schuurmann; van Schurman. Born on November 5, 1607, in Cologne, Germany; died on May 14, 1678, in Wieuwerd, Friesland; daughter of Frederik van Schurmann and Eva (von Harff) van Shurmann; never married; no children.

Writer, philosopher, theologian, and artist, Anna Maria van Schurmann was perhaps the most learned woman of 17th-century Europe. She was born in 1607, one of four children in a Calvinist family from the Dutch nobility, living in religious exile in Cologne. In 1610, the family returned to the Netherlands, settling in Utrecht. Van Schurmann was educated at home by her father. In accordance with Calvinist and Renaissance belief in the importance of education for women, van Schurmann, beginning at age two, received the same education as her brothers. By

age eleven, she had demonstrated such a remarkable intellect that her parents decided to continue her classical training and forego instruction in the household skills other girls learned in preparation for marriage and motherhood. After Frederik van Schurmann's death in 1623, Anna Maria studied largely on her own. She mastered an extensive variety of subjects, including geography, astronomy, music, mathematics, and theology, the subject that would come to mean the most to her. She also composed poetry on religious issues in Dutch. Van Schurmann's accomplishments extended to the visual arts, where she excelled in painting, engraving, and embroidery. Numerous of her self-portraits survive, along with portraits done of family members and friends.

However, she was best known in her time for her exceptional knowledge of languages. Besides Dutch, she was fluent in French, German, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. She also studied Eastern languages, including Turkish, Syrian, Arabic, and Ethiopian. This breadth of learning brought her early fame in the Netherlands and among the intellectual circles of Europe, where her astounding accomplishments as a scholar stimulated debate over the natural intelligence and capabilities of women.

Van Schurmann contributed to this debate as well. She became part of a wide network of learned men and women who contested philosophical and theological ideas through extensive correspondence. In the 1630s, she conducted one such debate with theologian André Rivet on the question of whether women should be educated. This debate was published as a Dissertation in 1641. In it, van Schurmann argues that not only do noblewoman have a right to devote themselves to scholarship, they are obligated to do so if they can, in order to find the path to salvation and virtue and so become better Christians. Throughout her writings defending women's education, this emphasis on its spiritual benefits brought van Schurmann the approval of many male scholars, who rejected as immoral the secular arguments for women's education.

In her late 20s, van Schurmann was allowed to attend lectures at the new university of Utrecht, the only woman given the privilege. Her former tutor in Greek and Hebrew, Gisbertus Voetius, was rector of the university and arranged a cubicle within which van Schurmann could hear lectures on theology and Asian languages without being seen by the male students. Under Voetius' influence, she began to turn away from poetry and painting as frivolous, and to concentrate more on spiritual matters.

On her mother's death in 1637, van Schurmann was left to care for two elderly aunts. This responsibility consumed much of her time, but she continued to correspond with philosophers and theologians across Europe. These included the French philosopher René Descartes, with whom she debated the nature of knowledge and reason. In 1648, she published a collection of these letters. In 1653, van Schurmann, her brother, and her aunts moved to Cologne to reclaim some family property, but by 1660 they had returned to the Netherlands and were living in a country estate outside Utrecht. By 1664, van Schurmann, age 57, resided alone, following the deaths of both aunts and her only surviving brother. This isolation, following a lifetime spent in the company of a devoted and supportive family, combined with her increasing religiosity, led van Schurmann to join a new Calvinist branch community in 1669. Its leader was Jean de Labadie, a Calvinist minister who broke from his church and established a Pietist community in Amsterdam. Van Schurmann was one of his earliest supporters; she followed him from Amsterdam to Westphalia, where the group sought asylum from persecution with her old friend Elizabeth of Bohemia (1618–1680).

In 1673, van Schurmann published Euklerion, an autobiographical and spiritual work in which she explained her decision to join the Labadists as part of her spiritual path to God. The decision to join Labadie had cost van Schurmann the respect of many friends and colleagues; they were surprised and disappointed to learn that she was turning away from philosophy and the sciences to follow a small and unpopular sect of the Reformed Church. In Euklerion, she defended her choice and at the same time renounced much of her life's work. In particular, she rejected her Dissertation, claiming that spiritual fellowship and meditation on God was more important than learning; she thus rejected her own promotion of women's education. Written from the isolation of her small community, Euklerion served to sever most of van Schurmann's connections with her former friends and correspondents.

In 1675, the Labadists moved to Wieuwerd, in Friesland. There van Schurmann died at age 71 in 1678. Notwithstanding the loss of fame suffered in her final years, the "star of Utrecht" remained the model of the learned woman in Europe for decades after her death. Despite her later renunciation of her philosophical works, it is precisely these popular earlier works which have secured her reputation as part of the histories of European philosophy, feminism, and Reformation theology.


De Baar, Mirjam, et al., eds. Choosing the Better Part: Anna Maria van Schurman (1607–1678). Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Kluwer Academic, 1996.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California

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van Schurmann, Anna Maria (1607–1678)

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