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SCHURMAN, Anna Maria van (born Cologne, 5 November 1607 – died Wieuwerd, Friesland, 14 May 1678), scholar, poet and artist. Daughter of Frederik van Schurman (1564-1623) and Eva von Harff de Dreiborn (died 1637). Anna Maria van Schurman never married.

Anna Maria van Schurman came from a family that had its roots in Antwerp. Her paternal grandparents, who were Calvinists, had to leave the city during the rule of the Duke of Alva. Via Frankfurt am Main the family ended up in Cologne in 1593, where they joined the Calvinist congregation ‘under the cross’. It was in this city that Anna’s parents were married on 5 November 1602 and their children were later born: Hendrik-Frederik (c. 1603-1632), Johan Godschalk (ca. 1605-1664), Anna Maria and Willem (ca. 1610-1615).

Early years

In 1615 the Van Schurman family moved to Utrecht, where Anna Maria was to spend most of her life. The family rented a house to the northwest of the Domkerkhof. There are indications that Frederik van Schurman was resident in or near The Hague in around 1621, and that he had ties – professional or otherwise – to the court. It is certain, in any case, that the family was again living in Utrecht in 1622.

Later Van Schurman looked back with gratitude on the upbringing her parents had given her: ‘I can faithfully say that they sought to educate their children not only in the humanities but also in piety – inasmuch as they were acquainted with it – with such seriousness and diligence that from a very young age, we enjoyed the services of an outstanding tutor, who taught us so well that I was able at the age of three (as I was later told) to read German, and even to recite parts of the catechism by heart’ (Van Schurman, Eucleria (1684) 20).

Anna Maria proved to be a talented child: she could draw, model clay and wax figures, make paper cut-outs and write poems. Eventually her father decided to educate her himself, and it was from him that she learned several languages and developed a keen interest in theology, history, geography and mathematics. To give her the opportunity to develop her artistic talents, he decided to let her take lessons from Magdalena van de Passe, daughter of the famous Utrecht engraver Crispijn van de Passe. Magdalena taught Anna Maria to engrave and to draw in chalk.

In 1623 the family moved to Franeker, where Johan Godschalk was to study medicine and Frederik van Schurman to attend the lectures of the Puritan professor William Ames (Amesius). The family settled in the Martenahuis in Voorstraat, where Frederik van Schurman died that same year. His widow remained in Franeker so that Johan Godschalk could continue his studies. It was 1626 before she returned with the rest of the family to Utrecht. In 1629 she bought a house called ‘De Lootse’ on the corner of Domkerkhof and Poelenburchsteeg (now Voetiusstraat).

Arts and Sciences

As early as 1620, thirteen-year-old Anna Maria van Schurman’s artistic talent won the praise of Anna Roemer Visscher: ‘Hail to thee, O youthful flower, whose artful skill I do commend, whom I love, whom I admire, and whom I take to be my friend’ (quoted by Van der Stighelen [1987], 13). It could have been the poet and Grand Pensionary Jacob Cats (1577-1660) who brought the two women together. At the age of fourteen, Anna Maria had written an ode to Cats in Latin. It appears from a letter in Latin, written by Anna Maria to Cats in 1622, that he had visited her at her parents’ home and was interested in her literary pursuits. Anna Maria, who referred to herself in this letter as ‘a girl who has only recently devoted herself to literature’, thanked him for his willingness to introduce her writings to a wider public.

It was through her brother Johan Godschalk that Anna Maria van Schurman, after 1623, became better acquainted with intellectual circles in the period. Following his father’s death, Johan Godschalk saw to his sister’s literary and theological education, as appears from his correspondence with Caspar Barlaeus (1584-1648).

In 1631 Anna Maria of her own accord contacted the theologian André Rivet (1572-1651), who was appointed a year later to tutor the young Prince William of Orange-Nassau. In November 1637 her correspondence with Rivet resulted in a debate as to whether it was fitting for a young Christian lady to attend university. In connection with this question, Anna Maria wrote her Dissertatio de ingenii muliebris ad doctrinam & meliores litteras aptitudine (a treatise on the aptitude of the female mind for science and letters). In this tract she defended the proposition that ‘women who are pre-eminently equipped through free time and other resources to practise science’ can and should study (Van Schurman, Verhandeling [1641], 70). In her view such scholarly pursuits should focus primarily on gaining a better understanding of the Bible and on theology. Her own language studies must also be viewed in this light. In addition to French, High German and English, she studied Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Chaldean, Arabic, Syrian and Ethiopian.

A key role was played in Anna Maria’s intellectual and spiritual development by her neighbour Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676). This professor of theology and Semitic languages, who was also a minister in the Utrecht Reformed Church, allowed her to attend his lectures in a screened-off ‘box’, so that she could not be seen by her fellow (male) students. She attended lectures in literature and medicine in the same way.

In addition to her studies, Anna Maria practised the visual arts. Her house even boasted its own Kunstkammer,a room specially furnished to display works of art. She devoted herself to portraiture, taking as her subject friends and relations as well as herself. As a portraitist, Van Schurman had a preference for miniatures, for which she used no fewer than eight techniques, some traditional and others modern, namely oils, gouache, pencil, pastels, wax, boxwood, ivory and the burin. The self-portrait Anna Maria made in pastels in 1640 is thought to be the first pastel drawing of North-Netherlandish origin. She became proficient in a number of techniques that were popular in the mid-seventeenth century with ‘well-to-do young ladies’ in the Dutch Republic. These included the art of decoupage – or cutting – and calligraphy, which could be carried out on parchment, paper or glass.


Between 1626 and 1636, Anna Maria van Schurman made a name for herself in Holland’s literary and scholarly circles, largely owing to her contact with Cats. In his Houwelijck (1625), Cats dedicated some verses to her and praised ‘Schuermans’ as an extraordinary woman: ‘ a jewel, only recently arisen, to whose learned youth and superior pen, the cities of the Rhine and I bear witness’ (quoted in Verbastert Christendom, 50). Such praise, which must have enhanced her reputation in Dutch literary circles, resulted in correspondence with the poets Revius, Heinsius, Barlaeus and Constantijn Huygens. At the request of Voetius, Van Schurman was invited in 1636 to write an ode to the Utrecht Academy. In this Latin poem, which appeared in print, she referred to the exclusion of women from the universities. This publication greatly increased her international reputation.

Van Schurman’s Dissertatio was published in 1641, in part through the offices of the Dordrecht physician Johan van Beverwijck (1594-1647). The publication of her defence of the right of Christian women to higher education prompted female scholars from all over Europe to seek contact with the Utrecht ‘Minerva’. Some of this correspondence was published with Van Schurman’s consent, and it shows that Bathsua Makin, Marie du Moulin, Anne de Rohan and Anne de Merveil were in touch with her. Van Schurman herself had written to Marie le Jars de Gournay (1565-1645), who had defended the equality of the sexes in her 1622 De l’egalité des hommes et des femmes (On the equality of men and women). Schurman also corresponded with the Irish-English Lady Dorothy Moore and with Elizabeth of the Palatinate, the daughter of Frederik V, King of Bohemia, the so-called Winter King.

Both in and outside the Dutch Republic, Schurman’s erudition was hailed in numerous poems and eulogies. This international fame fuelled the demand for reprints and translations of her work. In 1646 Guillaume Colletet brought out a French edition – titled Question celebre. S’il est necessaire, ou non, que les filles soient sçavantes – of the previously published correspondence between Van Schurman and Rivet in France. In 1648 another work by Van Schurman appeared in print: Opuscula (literally ‘little works’) Hebraea Graeca Latina et Gallica prosaica et metrica. This volume contains her Dissertatio, De vitae termino, and a selection of her letters and poems. A second edition and a partly revised third edition of these publications appeared in 1650 and 1652, respectively, and in 1659 an English edition of the Dissertatio was published under the title The learned maid; or, whether a maid may be a scholar.

A solitary existence

Anna Maria van Schurman never married. By her own account, this was a deliberate decision. The family fortune at her disposal entailed that she never had to earn a living. After the death of her mother in 1637, Anna Maria’s domestic life took another turn. Two elderly aunts, Sybilla (c. 1574-1661) and Agnes von Harff (c. 1572-1661), were left in her care. This kept her – also by her own account – from her scholarly and artistic pursuits, and prevented her from maintaining her contacts with literary and artistic circles. Early in 1653 she travelled with both aunts and her brother Johan Godschalk to her native city of Cologne to reclaim the family estate that had been taken from them illegally. It was not until August 1654 that they returned to the city that was so close to Van Schurman’s heart, as evidenced by the first lines of a poem she wrote from Cologne to a female friend living in Utrecht: ‘O Utrecht,� beloved City, how could I forget you’.

However, ecclesiastical disputes in Utrecht prompted her to leave the city yet again. In 1660 Anna Maria and Johan Godschalk van Schurman moved in with the two aunts and two servants in Lexmond (to the south of Utrecht), where they spent two very reclusive years. It was here that the elderly aunts died in quick succession in 1661. Anna Maria van Schurman returned to Utrecht and shortly afterwards came into contact, through Johan Godschalk, with the Genevan preacher Jean de Labadie (1610-1674). His vision of a Church exclusively for true born-again Christians greatly appealed to her. Following De Labadie’s appointment to the Walloon Church in Middelburg, she travelled frequently with a group of female friends to Zeeland to attend his services.

Joining the Labadists

The way of life advocated by De Labadie and his ideas about the role of the Church represented the fulfilment of her own religious ideals, namely pursuing a pure life based on faith in Jesus Christ, and distancing oneself from non-believers and ‘Christians in name only’ in order to prevent ‘contamination’. When De Labadie turned his back on the Reformed Church in 1669, she was one of the first to join his separatist congregation in Amsterdam. The Utrecht church council tried to persuade their famous member to return to the fold, but to no avail, nor was Van Schurman susceptible to the sharp criticism from her scholarly and literary friends regarding her break with the Reformed Church.

In 1670 Anna Maria van Schurman went with the Labadists to Herford in Westphalia, where her former friend Princess Elizabeth of the Palatinate gave them shelter. Two years later the ‘family’ settled in Altona, near Hamburg. Finally, in 1675, they moved for the last time and settled on the Walta Estate in Wieuwerd, Friesland, where Van Schurman died on 14 May 1678 at the age of 70. In accordance with her will, she was buried without ceremony in Wieuwerd cemetery.

Pious erudition

In the final years of her life, Anna Maria van Schurman was exempted from household chores because of her advanced age. She spent her days in a kind of wheelchair, surrounded by fellow believers. She did not renounce the arts and sciences completely after joining the Labadists, however, as evidenced by her letters, the portrait miniatures she made of Jean de Labadie, and her Eucleria, seu melioris partis electio (1673). This publication, which combines autobiography with philosophy and theology, contains Van Schurman’s defence of her decision to join the Labadists. Erudition and piety continued to define Van Schurman’s life and work until the end, although she tended more towards one or the other at different times of her life.

From an international point of view, the publication of Eucleria had few repercussions on Van Schurman’s reputation as a woman scholar. To be sure, the publication of her work was instrumental in prompting Frankfurt am Main’s Lutheran Pietists to seek contact with her and the Labadists, but interest in Van Schurman had already dwindled in French and English intellectual circles, and the appearance of Eucleria did nothing to change this.

Van Schurman bequeathed most of her property to the Labadist community. She had already sold much of her library, the house in Utrecht, her furniture and two annuity bonds.


Van Schurman’s fame as an artist continued after her death, thanks to Arnold van Houbraken, who included her in De groote Schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen (The great theatre of Netherlandish men and women painters) of 1718. Interest in her scholarship gradually decreased, however. By the eighteenth century, she had become better known for her virtuousness than for her remarkable talent. This trend continued throughout the nineteenth century, when Van Schurman was praised primarily for her demureness and modesty. The Maatschappij tot Nut van ’t Algemeen (Society for the Promotion of the Public Good) hailed her as the most famous woman in the history of the Netherlands, but only because of her exemplariness as a woman striving after inner refinement. Remarkably, Van Schurman’s friendships with men were the source of much speculation. It was rumoured, for example, that Cats had asked her to marry him when she was just fourteen, and that after joining the Labadists she had actually married De Labadie.

The first serious study of Van Schurman’s life, undertaken by G.D.J. Schotel, was published in 1853. He focused on her versatility as a ‘practitioner’ of the fine arts, languages, poetry and science, but it was her ‘living piousness’ that earned his highest praise. Only in the first half of the twentieth century was interest taken in Van Schurman’s erudition and her defence of the right of women to higher education. In 1978 the anniversary of her death provided an opportunity to make her life and work known to a wider public. Her art works were exhibited, a stamp was issued, Eucleria was reprinted, a docudrama was broadcast on television, and a historical novel was published under the title Het grote geheim van Anna Maria van Schuurman (Anna Maria van Schurman’s great secret).

A plaque on the house at 8 Achter de Dom in Utrecht still marks the place where the Van Schurman family home once stood, and where scholars from all over Europe came to see and admire the ‘Pallas of Utrecht’ and her works of art. Some of these works are still on display in the ’t Coopmanshûs Museum in Franeker (Friesland).

Reference work(s)

Van der Aa; Basse; BLGNP; DWA; Houbraken; Immerzeel; Kobus/De Rivecourt; Kok; Kramm; Lauwerkrans; NNBW; Paquot; Utrechtse biografieën; Verwoert; Wurzbach.


  • Manuscript Collections: KB, The Hague; UB Utrecht; Tresoar, Leeuwarden; Museum ’t Coopmanshûs, Franeker.
  • Nationaal Archief, The Hague: Archief Collot d’Escury.
  • Het Utrechts Archief: Notarieel archief.
  • Bibliothèque Municipale, Lille: see De Baar et al. ed., Anna Maria van Schurman, 184.
  • UB Amsterdam (UvA), Manuscript Collection 16 Ag: Letter of Marie du Moulin (Breda s.a.).
  • UB Bazel: G2 II 33: letters from Anna Maria van Schurman to Johann Jakob Schütz (1674-1678).


For a survey of her publications, see ‘Gedrukte werken Anna Maria van Schurman’, in: De Baar et al. ed., Anna Maria van Schurman (1992) 184-185. For a survey of  Schurman’s works of art, see Van der Stighelen (1987) 260-279. Her main writings:

  • Anna Maria van Schurman, Eucleria, of uitkiezing van het beste deel [1684], reprographical reprint, S. van der Linde ed. (Leeuwarden 1978).
  • Verbastert Christendom. Nederlandse gedichten van Anna Maria van Schurman (1607-1678), Pieta van Beek ed. (Houten 1993).
  • Anna Maria van Schurman, Verhandeling over de aanleg van vrouwen voor de wetenschap (Groningen 1996) translated from the Latin by Renée ter Haar [first Latin ed.: 1641].
  • Anna Maria van Schurman, Whether a christian woman should be educated and other writings from her intellectual circle, Joyce L. Irwin ed. (Chicago/London 1998).
  • Anna Maria van Schurman, Opuscula Hebraea, Graeca, Latina, Gallica, prosaica et metrica (Utrecht 1652) [at:].
  • Anne Marie de Schurman, femme savante, 1607-1678: correspondance, Constant Venesoen ed. (Parijs 2004).


  • G.D.J. Schotel, Anna Maria van Schurman (’s-Hertogenbosch 1853).
  • Una Birch, Anna Maria van Schurman: artist, scholar, saint (London 1909).
  • A.M.H. Douma, Anna Maria van Schurman en de studie der vrouw (Amsterdam 1924).
  • Joyce Irwin, ‘Anna Maria van Schurman: from feminism to pietism’, Church History 46 (1977) 48-62.
  • Katlijne van der Stighelen, Anna Maria van Schurman (1607-1678) of ‘Hoe hooge dat een maeght kan in de konsten stijgen’ (Leuven 1987) [detailed and well-documented biography].
  • Mirjam de Baar et al. ed., Anna Maria van Schurman (1607-1678), een uitzonderlijk geleerde vrouw (Zutphen 1992) [English translation: Choosing the better part. Anna Maria van Schurman (1607-1678) (Dordrecht etc. 1996), with comprehensive bibliography].
  • A. Agnes Sneller, ‘Tijdgenoten over Anna Maria van Schurman (1607-1678)’ and ‘Anna Maria van Schurman’, in: Idem, Met man en macht. Analyse en interpretatie van teksten van en over vrouwen in de vroegmoderne tijd (Kampen 1996) 59-115, 117-151.
  • Pieta van Beek, Klein werk: de Opuscula Hebraea Graeca Latina et Gallica, prosaica et metrica van Anna Maria van Schurman (1607-1678) (1997) at:
  • Mirjam de Baar, ‘“God has chosen you to be a crown of glory for all women!”. Anna Maria van Schurman’s international network of learned women’, in: S. van Dijk et al. ed., ‘I have heard about you’. Foreign women’s writing crossing Dutch borders (Hilversum 2004) 108-135.
  • Pieta van Beek, De eerste studente: Anna Maria van Schurman 1636 (Utrecht 2004).


Self-portrait, pastel drawing , 280 x 230 mm; signed and dated on the back, 29-6-1640 (Museum ’t Coopmanshûs, Franeker).

Author: Mirjam de Baar

last updated: 13/01/2014