Anna Maria van Schurman: an academic multitalent

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Portret Anna Maria van Schurman door Jan Lievens (1649)

Utrecht University’s new teaching complex between Achter de Dom and Achter Sint Pieter will be named after Anna Maria van Schurman. A name not everyone will know. Who was this woman and why is the education centre being named after her?

Daughter of a refugee

Things weren’t much different in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries than they are today: wars and persecution on religious grounds were common. Van Schurman’s father had fled Antwerp in 1568 and eventually settled in Cologne, where Anna Maria van Schurman was born in 1607. From there the family moved to the Netherlands, where in 1627 they settled in Achter de Dom in Utrecht, now number 8. Van Schurman would live there for forty years.

Zelfportret van Anna Maria van Schurman (1607-1678) op 33-jarige leeftijd. Bron: Wikimedia
Self portrait by Anna Maria van Schurman

First female student in the Netherlands

Van Schurman is known as the ‘first female student’. She attended lectures from behind a curtain, out of a lodge. The lodge was next to one of the two lecture halls that were made in the current Aula of the Academy Building. Whether you can call her a real student is the question, but ultimately that is not so interesting. What painfully remains is that until the late nineteenth century, it was simply impossible for women to register as students and take exams.

Student or not, Anna Maria van Schurman remains forever linked to Utrecht University because she already raised the issue of women’s access as students in a Latin poem in praise of the university’s foundation in 1636. Wonderful, she wrote, having such a university and Utrecht should be happy with it, but “Non haec Virgineis pervia Sacra choris”: for women this sanctuary remains closed. She did not let this put her off, however, and consequently followed the lectures from her lodge. Van Schurman also often dropped in on the person she considered her tutor: the theologian Gisbertus Voetius, who lived around the corner in the street that now goes by his name.

Famous across Europe

But it was only partly theology that had Van Schurman’s interest. Voetius also taught Semitic languages. Not for the sake of the languages themselves, but as a tool to better understand the Bible. Van Schurman borrowed his books and turned out to be something of a language prodigy. In addition to Latin and Greek, she mastered Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac and Arabic. She even compiled a grammar for Ethiopian. Apart from that, she painted and drew and made beautiful embroidery.

Van Schurman turned out to be a language prodigy: she spoke Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac and Arabic.

Her reputation was so great that she was visited in her Achter de Dom home by the Swedish Queen Christina, who was passing through on her way to Rome. In the latter city, Van Schurman’s portrait was displayed in the renowned Accademia dei Lincei. Van Schurman was an active member of the large correspondence network called the Republic of Letters. This led, among other things, to the fact that her work can still be found in numerous international libraries.

Van Schurman passed away in Wiuwerd

Over the years, the ever-pious Anna Maria van Schurman began to feel increasingly uncomfortable with the direction the official Calvinist church was taking. She felt more at home with groups that advocated a much more intimate religious experience. She broke with Voetius, joined the preacher Jean de Labadie and finally chose to live in the strict Labadist community in Wiuwerd in Friesland. There she died in 1678.

More information

A first introduction to the life of Anna Maria van Schurman can be found in: Pieta van Beek, The First Female Student: Anna Maria van Schurman (Utrecht 2024). You will find more literature on Van Schurman and on Utrecht University (approx. 16,000 titles) in the University Library.