In recognition of Women’s History Month 2020, we celebrate the accomplishments of Dutch scholar Christine A. M. E. Morhmann, the first women named an Honorary Member of the Linguistic Society of America.

There is only one street named after her (in a town, Ridderkerk, she had no connections with), but Christine (Chr.A.E.M.) Morhmann was quite famous at one time. I think most people in the Netherlands who knew  of her knew little about her work – Latin in the late Antiquity, particularly that of the Christian community – but more about the ups Cutand downs in her career as a woman scholar. Somehow she manages to stir up controversy even today. Internationally, she was highly regarded as a specialist of Patristic Latin, the Latin as written by the Western church fathers, and published as easily in French (her preferred academic language later on), as in German and English.

She was born in Groningen into a Catholic middle class family and followed the unusual path of attending a non-parochial gymnasium there (academically oriented secondary school). She then went on to study classics at Utrecht University, where she became the star student of lecturer Jos Schrijnen (1869-1938). When the Catholic University of Nijmegen was founded in 1923 she followed Schrijnen to Nijmegen, where he became professor of classics, linguistics, and ethnography, and also the first rector magnificus (head) of the new university. Schrijnen, the younger brother of a bishop, was a prominent priest with the title of Monseigneur. Schrijnen was also a great organizer. Later on he was co-founder and the first permanent secretary of the Comité International Permanent des Linguistes (CIPL), the largest international linguistic association. Mohrmann was to become his successor as permanent secretary of CIPL, from 1946 to 1977, and played a key role there.

Mohrmann and Schrijnen formed quite a team. Together they laid the foundation for what was to be called the École de Nimègue (Nijmegen School), which explored the features of the Latin of the Christian community in late Antiquity and the Middle Ages and claimed there was a Sondersprache, a variety of Latin with special syntax, lexicon, semantics, and stylistic features characterizing the Christian community. Later on, Mohrmann nuanced these claims as to syntax, but their work on the transformation of Latin lexicon, semantics and stylistics into the main written language of medieval Christian Europe gained wide acceptance and was regarded as definitive.

In 1928 she obtained her M.A. in Classical Languages in Nijmegen and in 1932 her doctoral diploma. Mohrmann wrote her highly acclaimed PhD thesis with Schrijnen on the language of St. Augustine. In the same year that she defended it, Schrijnen published his work claiming a special status for the Latin of the Christian community. This suggests that the central thesis of their school of thinking was a mutual achievement. Schrijnen was well aware of Mohrmann’s merits. In the years before his death in 1938 he tried several times to get her appointed as his successor, and went as high as the Vatican to achieve this aim. To no avail; the bishops responsible for appointments at the professorial level in Nijmegen would not budge. Was a woman professor at this Catholic university a bridge too far? Were the close working relations between Schrijnen and Mohrmann perceived as too intimate?

In the meanwhile, Mohrmann worked as a classics teacher in various high schools but continued publishing for various audiences. In 1943 she was appointed Lecturer and later Reader at the Utrecht University, and in 1946 Reader and then Adjunct Professor at the University of Amsterdam. After the difficult years during the German occupation, during which she continued working on her own, she blossomed and her academic output is impressive.

In 1952 she was finally appointed professor of Early Christian Greek and Latin in Nijmegen. She had 22 PhD students, two of whom were Americans, and the others with a broad range of nationalities. As a Nijmegen professor, finally, she became ‘one of the guys’. She smoked cigars as the best of them, joined debating groups (and founded others). She was honored with a number of honorary doctorates, academy memberships, high Dutch and French decorations, and was made an honorary member of the LSA in 1955.

Her valedictorian speech in 1973 (Nijmegen was called ‘Havana on the Rhine’ in those days) was bitter. She felt that the doubts the university had voiced about continuing her chair were an affront to the Catholic tradition of the university. After all the troubles that had come her way due to that tradition, she remained as committed to the church as to scholarship. She was buried in her academic gown.


Pieter C. Muysken

Radboud University