The cities of the medieval Low Countries established secular elementary schools open to urban middle and upper class children, as well as many from poorer families. As a result, many adults, regardless of gender, could at least read in their native language. As many beguines came from middle class families, we can assume that many of them could read and write. Many made their livings as teachers. By the 15th century, many Rules for beguines actually distinguished between those who could and could not read, though some communities expected that all of their members be able to do so.
[Page from a Book of Hours probably made for a beguine living in Huy]
[Walters Museum MS W.37, Source: Flicker]
*For a more specific idea of where and when I’m talking about and/or what on earth a beguine might be, try this post.
**The language of the people. In the times and places I’m talking about, that would be French and/or Dutch. Many people in the Low Countries at this time were bilingual or multilingual.
Simons, Walter. Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200-1565. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. (Note: Parts of this book can be read here. Pages 3-7 are particularly relevant, as are pages 80-85.)
Simons, Walter. “‘Staining the Speech of Things Divine’: the Uses of Literacy in Medieval Beguine Communities.” In The Voice of Silence: Women’s Literacy in a Men’s Church, edited by Thérèse de Hemptinne and Maria Eugenia Góngora, 85-110. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers, 2004.