Known widely throughout the seventeenth century as the ‘miracle of her sex,’ and ‘the Dutch Minerva,’ Anna Maria van Schurman (1607-1678) challenged her male-dominated world by existing within it. She was the first woman to attend University in the Netherlands, though she remained hidden behind the lattice window of a confessional—so she wouldn’t “distract” the men (van Beek, 2010). She penned a Dissertatio which argued that women should be educated exactly as men were, though it met with fierce opposition from her intellectual sponsors and mentors. She pursued the “womanly arts” of painting and engraving, though she also mastered some fifteen languages and studied science, literature, and theology. She attained world-wide fame for her learning and talents, though she would eventually renounce it toward the end of her life (Larsen, 2016). She traded verses with the famous Dutch poet Constantijn Huygens. She met with Rene Descartes just after he published his Discourse on the Method. She adopted as her surrogate father Andre Rivet, the most influential professor of Reformed Theology of his day and eventual tutor to the prince of Orange.
It is well-known that van Schurman’s knowledge of Latin helped her gain entry into this world (see, e.g., van Beek, 2010). Little has yet been said as to exactly how. Through a careful reading of her private correspondence, I will show how she was able to leverage her deep knowledge of and allusions to the classical tradition into invitations to the Republic of Letters. My argument will proceed on two fronts. First, given that van Schurman’s full correspondence has yet to appear in a critical edition or in English translation (though it is forthcoming in Larsen and Maiullo), I will provide a brief overview of her Latin letters, written between 1631 and 1669 to her surrogate father and mentor Andre Rivet and to her sponsor Constantijn Huygens. This collection survives in only one manuscript, written in van Schurman’s own hand, and it reveals her perspective on the politics, theological developments, scientific advances, and intellectual milieu of the seventeenth century. I will then home in on van Schurman’s first letters to Rivet—written between 1631 and 1634—where she introduces herself and her work by appealing to the classical tradition in order to indicate that, though she is a woman, she deserves to be taken seriously as a scholar and intellectual.
Let me provide one example. In her second letter to Rivet, van Schurman mentions her little book (libellum), which she is writing in French, the language appropriate for women, because of its charm and elegance (lepos ac elegentia). She says that her studies (studia) might be more rightly called trifles (nugae) because, at this point, she needs help shaping the arguments —help, she hopes, Rivet will provide. By describing her work as libellum, nugae, and lepos ac elegentia, she signals Catullus’ dedication poem in which he ironically labels his poetic enterprise as naught more than mere trifling, even as he has greater ambitions in mind. Van Schurman casts Rivet as Cornelius Nepos, Catullus’ dedicatee, who, as we learn in Catullus 1, “usually thought his trifles were worth something” (tu solebas / meas esse aliquid putare nugas, 3-4). Van Schurman thus applies her own Catullan wit to secure Rivet’s affection, hoping that he, too, will find value in her nugae. It worked. Rivet wrote back, agreed to read her work, and promised to meet with her in person.
In sum, van Schurman lets the classics do the talking. Allusions to the classics allow her to maintain her feminine modesty by not speaking directly, but, at the same time, she deploys them perfectly to achieve her goals: she engages Rivet in an intertextual and encoded conversation, which proves both that she is intellectually worthy of full acceptance into the Republic of Letters and that she is savvy enough to play politics. This delicate dance forms the basis of my paper.