The development of Baltic women’s reading and writing culture until about 1840

Kairit Kaur

Most women living in the region probably could not read or write in the Middle Ages. The first educational centres for Baltic women were probably Cistercian nunneries on the basis of which the first Lutheran girls’ schools were founded in the bigger towns a after the Reformation. Women’s reading materials primarily included texts belonging to the Christian canon, prayer books and hymnals. Their writing probably tended to be limited to everyday communication. 

First Baltic women writers appear in the 17th century, first as so-called „learned women“ and pioneers in women’s occasional poetry. „Learned women“ tended to be the daughters of educated or rich bourgeois fathers. Roughly the same period sees the emergence of noblewomen who produced extensive „spiritual recipe books“. We see first examples of autobiographies by the end of the century. 

The Great Northern War created a long gap in women’s printed works. Women’s names appear again only in around 1740 but first only as imagined by men – as the authors of fictitious readers’ letters in the first moral weeklies of the Baltic countries. At the time when women’s own voice was not heard in the public sphere, they were active in the reception of pietist Herrnhut literature. Starting from the 1760s first texts probably written by actual women appeared in Baltic German magazines. By the late 1770s women were in the literary sphere – the period saw the publication of the first review by a woman, also the first poetry collections. In the 1780s Baltic women writers broke out of anonymity. 

There was a major shift in the 1790s when Rousseau-inspired bourgeois ideal of the „natural“ woman was established according to which a woman had to be completely dedicated to her husband and children and withdraw from the public sphere. Women’s texts vanished from the media and there are no known poetry collections until 1817. If women could write poetry at all, it was within the intimate circle of family and friends. There were attempts to direct women’s reading. However, the first major autobiographies also date from the 1790s. At the turn of the century, the first novel by a woman was published. 

The beginning of the 19th c. sees an increasing acceptance of women’s activities in the public sphere that are closely connected to the domestic duties of bourgeois women (cooking, home economics, child rearing). Women could also appear as writers in connection with these areas. The first drama text by a woman was published in the late 1820s.