In the fifteenth century women had few career opportunities. Few, bar those in the higher social classes were even sent to school, and women were not admitted to universities; Oxford university, for example, didn’t permit women to matriculate until 1920. Of medieval women, Sherrill Cohen writes that most were faced with three options: ‘marriage, monasticism, and prostitution.’ (Cohen, p. 170). For those who did not join a convent, marriage came early: ‘an unmarried girl of sixteen or seventeen was a catastrophe.’ (Plumb, p. 132).
During the Middle Ages we witness the establishment of universities, but few believed that there was much to be gained by teaching women to read and write, so universities remained entirely off-limits to women. Perhaps Victorian romanticism is responsible for painting a fantastic or idealized picture of women during the Middle Ages: Maidens in pretty gowns, prince suitors — something more akin to Disney than historical fact. The reality wasn’t so pretty, and the prevailing view — sponsored by Church and State — was that women should eschew vanity, ambition, and learning in favor of female labors (e.g. housework and sewing), chastity, and prayer.
The craze of torturing and burning witches really took off in the fifteenth century and coincides with the so-called Witch-Bull of 1484 issued by Pope Innocent VIII, wherein he sanctioned the inquisition to pursue any means necessary to prosecute and execute witches (mostly women). The Papal Bull was addressed to the inquisitor Henry Institoris (Heinrich Kramer) who soon after, in 1487, published Malleus Maleficarum or Hammer of Witches, a witch-hunters guide that concerned itself with questions like ‘Concerning witches who copulate with devils. Why is it that women are chiefly addicted to evil superstitions?’
Prior to the introduction of printing in the mid-fifteenth century women were involved in the production of manuscripts. The history of nuns working as scribes can be traced back to the early days of the Church. Eusebius (263–339 A.D.) speaks of such women being employed as copyists. (Putnam, p. 53) Other women like Mahaut of Artois (1268–1329) served as patrons. Then there are the numerous female scribes of Schäftlarn, Admont and Wessobrunn in twelfth-century Bavaria; Clara Hatzlerin of Augsburg who worked as a copyist during the third quarter of the fifteenth century; or miniaturists and illuminators like Jeanne de Montbaston in Paris in the mid-fourteenth century.
From 1476 to 1484, the Dominican nuns of Sanctum Jacobum de Ripoli were printing in Florence. They published many books and undoubtedly numerous broadsides. A logbook of the convent press was discovered in the eighteenth century and contains the earliest record of a female compositor, a nun, who in 1481/82 typeset a folio edition of Il Morgante, (ISTC: ip01123500) a work by Italian poet Luigi Pulci (1432–84).
In Mantua, northern Italy, about 1476, Estellina Conat, wife to physician and printer Abraham Conat was involved in the typesetting of one of the earliest printed Hebrew books, a small (octavo) edition of Behinat Olam (ISTC: ij00218520). In the colophon she writes:
“I, Estellina, wife of my master my husband the honored Rabbi Abraham Conat, may he be blessed with children and may his days be prolonged. Amen! wrote this book ‘Investigation of the World’ with the aid of the youth Jacob Levi of Provence of Tarascon, may he live.” — Translation from Amram, p. 32.
It was not uncommon for the wife of a craftsman to work alongside her husband. The atelier and the living quarters of the fifteenth-century print-shop merged into one, so that, even if the wife were not directly working at printing, she would undoubtedly become very familiar with the workings of the business. Wives too were permitted to join the same guilds as their husbands, something that in most instances was not permitted for women not already associated through marriage and familial connections.
The very first woman to ever add her name to the colophon of a printed book as its printer is Anna Rügerin, who published two folio editions in the summer of 1484 in the imperial city of Augsburg in southern Germany. Upon the death of her husband, Thomas, it appears that Anna took full control of the print shop.
Anna uses the Gothic type (Type 1:120G) of Johann Schönsperger, who continued using it until 1492. Interestingly, Sheila Edmunds identifies Schönsperger as Anna’s brother. In fact Anna’a mother, Barbara Traut Schönsperger’s remarried in 1467/68 (when printing was first introduced to Augsburg) to the Augsburg printer, Johann Bämler marking ‘the beginning of an extensive family network actively engaged in Augsburg’s book trade.’ (Edmunds, p. 180)
In the sixteenth century many more women were involved in book production. Helen Smith estimates that ‘between 1550 and 1650, at least a hundred and thirty-two women were actively involved in the production or sale of books aimed at the British market’ alone. (Smith, p. 163) Most worked in publishing and bookselling rather than printing and, of those who did, very few signed their books, remaining anonymous or simply referring to themselves as heirs to the master printer. One of the few exceptions was Girolama Cartolari, (Parker, p.527) a native of Perugia who, upon the death of her husband in 1543, ran her print shop in Rome right up until 1559.
Though we have scant records of the very earliest female printers and typographers, in the present-day, women bookmakers, editors, printers, type designers, and typographers are, in many respects, heirs to the likes of Anna Rügerin and Estellina Conat, and many other anonymous women who, to this day, continue to enlighten and inspire.
 The importance of this book in the persecution and murder of witches has been played down. It is true that Pope Innocent VIII later disavowed the book, but he had lit a fire that he was powerless (or truly unwilling) to extinguish. Historian Malcolm Gaskill estimates that 40,000–50,000 witches (mostly women) were executed over a period of 300 years. (Gaskill, Malcolm. Witchcraft, a very short introduction, 2010, p.76). Some cite much higher figures.
 The first dated Hebrew printed book is Perush ha-Torah, 17 Feb. 1475 (ISTC: is00625180).
Amram, David W. The Makers of Hebrew Books in Italy. 1909.
Beach, Alison I. Women as Scribes: Book Production and Monastic Reform in Twelfth-Century Bavaria. Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Booton, Diane E. Manuscripts, Market and the Transition to Print in Late Medieval Brittany. Ashgate, 2010.
Conway, M. The ‘Diario’ of the Printing Press of San Jacopo di Ripoli (1476–1484). 1999.
Edmunds, Sheila. Anna Rügerin Revealed. Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History , 2., (1999): pp. 179–181.
Gies, Frances & Joseph. Women in the Middle Ages. 1978.
Hay, Dennis. Europe in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries.
Leibowitz, Joshua. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 1958, vol. 13, issue 4, pp. 564–566.
Newman, Martha. Review of Beach, Alison I., Women as Scribes: Book Production and Monastic Reform in Twelfth-Century Bavaria. H-German, H-Net Reviews. February, 2006.
Parker, Deborah. Women in the Book Trade in Italy, 1475-1620. Renaissance Quarterly Vol. 49, No. 3 (Autumn, 1996), pp. 509-541. The University of Chicago Press.
Plumb J. H. The Italian Renaissance. 2001.
Putnam, A.M. Books and their Makers During the Middle Ages. Vol. 1. 1962 (reprint).
Skemer, Don C. Binding Words: Textual Amulets in the Middle Ages
Smith, Helen. “Print[ing] Your Royal Father Off”: Early Modern Female Stationers and the Gendering of the British Book Trades. Text, Vol. 15, (2003), pp. 163-186. Indiana University Press.
Credits & acknowledgements
Header image: Rogier van der Weyden, The Magdalen Reading, c. 1435–1438.
ISTC: Incunabula Short Title Catalogue.
USTC: Universal Short Title Catalogue.
Thank you to the gracious Margaret Schaus, Lead Research & Instruction Librarian at Haverford College and Editor of Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index. And thanks to Diane Booton, Karen Nipps, Misha Beletsky, and Reiko Masuda for help in locating hard-to-find Journal articles.