The Mother of Anglo-Saxon Studies

Yvonne Seale writes about the first female Anglo-Saxon scholar, Elizabeth Elstob, an 18th-century “pioneer” in a recent History Today article.

Engraving from a self-portrait, published in two of her works. - See more at:

Engraving from a self-portrait, published in two of her works. – See more at:

In one of her publications, Elstob asks, ‘If Women may be said to have Souls, and if good Learning be one of the Soul’s greatest Improvements; we must retort the Question. Where is the Fault in Women seeking after Learning?”

Frontispiece for Elstob's An Anglo-Saxon Homily on the Birthday of Saint Gregory (1709). - See more at:

Frontispiece for Elstob’s An Anglo-Saxon Homily on the Birthday of Saint Gregory (1709). – See more at:

Even Thomas Jefferson was a devotee of her book on Old English grammar, called The Rudiments of Grammar for the English-Saxon Tongue (1715).

Elizabeth received early support for her learning and education from her brother. Brothers can be key actors in their sisters’ education, especially at time when women’s learning was not especially encouraged. The nineteenth-century writer and activist Harriet Martineau wrote under a pseudonym, a mere initial, to hide her identity and gender. When her brother learned of her authorship, he fully endorsed her vocation, saying, “’Now, dear, leave it to other women to make shirts and darn stockings; and do you devote yourself to this.’ I went home in a sort of dream, so that the squares of the pavement seemed to float before my eyes. That evening made me an authoress.”[i]

How many other women pursued their dreams thanks to men who supported their yearnings?  We know that Christine de Pizan (late fourteen- and early fifteenth centuries) was granted a full education due to her father’s intervention. Thomas supported Christine’s desire to study and learn. Not every girl was given this opportunity.

British Library, Ms. Harley 4431, f° 4

British Library, Ms. Harley 4431, f° 4. Christine writes with her puppy by her side.

While a noble family might hire a tutor to teach girls in the family, the only other way a young female could become proficient in Latin, rhetoric, and other subjects was to enter a convent as a child or young teenager.  Thereafter, she might take a vow to be a nun or simply leave the convent once a marriage had been arranged for her. Thanks to her father, Christine did not have to leave home for her high-powered education.

It is in the interest of both men and women that women be education. Some far-thinking men realized that in centuries long in the past.  I hope that men around the world come to understand that as well.

One wonders about Grendel’s Mother’s life if she had had a supportive brother or father.


[i] Harriet Martineau, Autobiography, excerpted in Gilbert and Gubar 108-9 [106-9].

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