Why ‘Churches and Education’?

Professor Morwenna Ludlow is President of the Ecclesiastical History Society 2017-18, here she explains her choice of theme for the annual summer conference: ‘Churches and Education’.

Some time in the early 380s, a middle-aged Bishop looked back on the education of his oldest sister:

Her mother was most concerned that the child be educated, but she did not educate her in the customary secular curriculum, which for the most part instructs the early years of study by means of the poems. For she thought it disgraceful and altogether unsuitable to teach a tender and impressionable nature either the tragic passions – those passions of women which gave the poets their starting points and themes, or the indecencies of comedy, or the causes of the miseries that befell Troy, which throughout their degrading tales concerning women tend to the corruption of character.

Instead, the parts of the God-inspired Scripture that seem more easily learned at a young age: these formed the child’s lessons, especially the Wisdom of Solomon, and besides this, whatever bears on the moral life. Indeed there was nothing whatever of the psalter that she did not know, since she recited each part of the psalmody at its own proper time. When she rose from her bed, or began her duties or rested from them, or sat down to eat or retired from table, when she went to bed or rose from it for prayers, she kept up the psalmody wherever she went, like a good travelling companion that never left her at any time. Growing up in these and similar practices, and having trained her and especially in wool-work, she reached her twelfth year…[1]

This brief snap-shot of Christian education in the aristocratic household of a certain Basil and Emmelia raises all sorts of intriguing questions: was the secular curriculum of – we can assume – Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes and Homer ‘customary’ for young girls as well as boys? Was Emmelia’s reaction in this case a typical late-antique concern to protect young girls – or was it a specifically Christian response to keep women’s education pure? Clearly, Emmelia is portrayed as being in charge of her daughter’s education, but what can we assume from that about her own literacy? Tantalisingly, the narrative seems to hint that she knew what she was rejecting and why she was rejecting it – but was she just relying on reputation? Or is the author’s own voice creeping in at this stage?

Gregory of Nyssa (the author of the text above)

And it is not just the attitude to secular or, we might say, ‘pagan’ education that is intriguing. Few people today, I think, would recommend the Wisdom of Solomon as that part of the bible ‘more easily learned at a young age’! Relevance to the ‘moral life’ perhaps explains the choice of text, but again raises a further question: was this a Christian or a pagan move? For the three-fold division of education into ethics, the study of the natural world and finally philosophy (and/or theology) was recommended by the third-century Origen of Alexandria, probably on the basis of pre-Christian Greek precedents.

The weaving of an educational practice (learning a text by heart) into the structure of every-day life strikes a chord with other evidence we have of domestic piety at the time. But it also foreshadows the development of this young woman’s household into a proto-monastic community, whose lives were shaped by the daily round of communal prayer. For this 12-year old girl was Macrina, older sister of Gregory of Nyssa (author of the extract above) and of Basil the Great, whose rules were not only foundational for eastern monasticism but were influential on the western tradition, via Cassian and Benedict. Is then Macrina’s knowledge of the psalms authentic, or is it due to her brother wishing to position her as an ascetic already at the age of twelve, not just a proto-ascetic, but the proto-ascetic who mastered the life-style considerably earlier – we are being persuaded – than her more famous brother Basil?

St Basil the Great, 11th-century icon

The implicit rivalry between Macrina and Basil recurs later in the text. Basil arrives back from higher education in Athens, ‘puffed up with the thought of his own eloquence’ and very snooty towards his peers in what he now clearly regarded as a very poor provincial substitute for his university town.[2] But Macrina (now in her twenties) ‘took him in hand’ and persuaded him to join her in her life of ascetic discipline. Not only Basil: Macrina persuaded her widowed mother to join her too. And, for her youngest brother Peter, Macrina was such an important educational influence, that she became everything: ‘father, teacher, guardian, mother, counsellor of every good’.[3] In her biography, she is portrayed mainly as a teacher of virtue, but in another work by the same author, On the Soul and the Resurrection, Macrina is portrayed as knowing not only about Christian theology, but also about astronomy and medicine, two key components of the aristocratic young man’s education.

St Macrina , fresco in Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev, 11th century

A final aspect of the text is the way in which intellectual education is bound together with practical skills. As a young girl, Macrina learned to work with wool. So far, so normal for an aristocratic family. But, after her decision to dedicate her life to asceticism, she increasingly took on (and, presumably therefore had to learn) tasks which were more usual for slaves, for example, bread-making. But even this is given a Christian, liturgical slant, for the text hints that she made bread not just for the house-hold, but also for the altar. Her brother, Peter, besides being well-educated in the usual sense (as we can tell from the little of his correspondence that survives) ‘was so clever in every kind of manual craft, that without anyone instructing him in every detail he achieved a skill that most people only achieve with time and toil’.[4] In the famine that swept the region in 369, we are told that it was Peter’s farming skills that kept the community alive.

This is clearly a highly literary and very rhetorical text. In it Gregory of Nyssa is painting a carefully-crafted portrait of a woman who excelled not just in her virtue but in the way she formed others in all sorts of ways both practical and intellectual. We have so little other evidence to verify the details, it is difficult for us to tell how this matches up to the life of Macrina or other early Christian women. Nevertheless, the things Gregory chooses to relate do reveal something about late antique debates about education. Furthermore, this text encapsulates some crucial questions about churches and education which continue to reverberate down the centuries:

  • What is the relationship between specifically Christian and other kinds of education?
  • What is the relationship between the intellectual and the practical aspects of education? Between theology and ethics? Between reading and learning by heart? Between book-learning and training in the crafts?
  • What is the story of women’s education in the churches and in Christianity more broadly?
  • What is the relationship between education in the church as an institution (ranging from catechesis and sermons to formal church schools) and education in other Christian spheres, such as the home or informal religious communities?

In Exeter I look forward to exploring these questions with you, across a wide chronological spectrum!

To see further details of the conference, book on or submit a proposal click here. Proposals of 200 words using the proposal form, are to be sent to ehseditorial@gmail.com by 22 April 2017.

EHS Education 2017 poster

[1] Translation of Gregory of Nyssa’s ‘The Life of Macrina’ from: Gregory of Nyssa, Macrina the Younger, philosopher of God, trans. Anna Silvas (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2008), 113–14.

[2] Ibid., 117.

[3] Ibid., 122.

[4] Ibid., 123.

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