Women in the Renaissance and Reformation

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Women in the Renaissance and Reformation

Several questions arise when describing the condition of European women in the Renaissance: Did their social or economic condition improve? Did they gain greater access to power? Were they able to express themselves in different ways than in the Middle Ages? Finally, was there a Renaissance for women? These questions can be addressed by looking at women's lives in three settings: the family, religion, and elite culture (the lives of female rulers, artists, and thinkers).

Women in the family

Women played several roles in their families, depending on their age and marital status. First a woman was a daughter and then a wife, mother, or widow. In contrast, male roles were generally defined by social position or occupation—merchant, knight, priest, peasant, barrel maker, weaver, and so on. Female roles were more sharply defined in upper-class society than in peasant society. The main reason was economic. Upper-class daughters, wives, and widows had a share in the family estate, so they were regarded mainly as a way to hold onto or expand. Therefore their lives were strictly regulated and controlled. In contrast, peasant women generally had more freedom. Wives, daughters, and even widows were actively involved in helping to support the family by maintaining the household and working along with men on the farm or in the shop. Therefore it was not practical to regulate and control their lives.


A daughter was called a "virgin," that is, one who has not engaged in sexual intercourse. Daughters were expected to remain virgins until they were married, or for their entire lives if they were not married. The ideal of virginity had roots in the Christian New Testament (the second part of the Bible), in Greek philosophy, and in writings of early Christian leaders. These works were based on the concept of the patriarchal family (a family headed by the father) as the foundation of society. A person's identity depended on his or her descent through the male line. During the eleventh century this ideal was strengthened by reform movements within the church. Around the twelfth century in western Europe the requirement of virginity for daughters received new emphasis, first in the households of the high nobility and then in the property-owning classes. Property was passed along almost entirely to male heirs. Therefore, the main purpose of daughters was to serve as brides who linked two family lines together. To assure the legitimacy of any male heirs resulting from a marriage, it was necessary that the bride's father be able to assure her future husband that she was a virgin.

Increasingly in the Renaissance era, the concept of honor also depended on virginity. The violation of a daughter's virginity brought dishonor not only on the girl, but also on all of her male kin. Therefore, a young woman was usually held responsible for being raped (forced to have sexual relations) because this assault meant she was no longer a virgin and she had thus dishonored her family. Even though the young women was the victim of the rape, she was the one who was punished. Punishment often varied with the social standing of the woman's male relatives. For example, the daughter of a nobleman was punished more severely than the daughter of a laborer because the nobleman had a more honored place in society. When some young girls lost their virginity through rape or seduction, they were then abandoned by their male kin and often turned to prostitution (having sexual intercourse in exchange for money), which was the only way they could support themselves.

Wives and managers

In addition to preserving their virginity, daughters were required to master skills that they would later use in marriage. Most important were textile crafts such as spinning, weaving, and embroidering, which were generally taught by the older women of the household. Young girls also learned to manage finances, to supervise servants, and to nurse ailing household members. Finally, girls were instructed in chastity (refraining from sexual intercourse), obedience, and silence, all qualities that were thought to prepare a daughter for her role as a wife.

Wives had many responsibilities as workers and as managers of a household. Peasant women performed numerous duties, from tending fowl and sheep and a vegetable garden to brewing beer and assisting with the harvest. Artisan wives did skilled craft work alongside their husbands, or did the work themselves during their husbands' absence. Sometimes women became members of craft guilds in this way. (A guild was an organization that trained apprentices for a craft or trade and set standards for quality.) Wives of merchants tended shops, helped keep accounts, or managed other business records. Among wealthier patrician and aristocratic families, women performed the textile work that women everywhere were expected to do, but they generally made luxury items such as gold-thread embroidery. Their primary role was the running of the household: seeing to the purchase, storage, and replenishment of supplies; entertaining their husbands' visitors; supervising the servants; and nursing the ill, whether servants or family members.

The dowry

In most regions of Europe, when a woman of the propertied classes got married, she was expected to bring to her new husband's household a portion of her father's wealth. Called a dowry, that portion usually represented the woman's claim on her inheritance. The function of the dowry was to remove a woman from her father's line so that she had no further claim on his property. Her share of her inheritance was to be as small as possible, to minimize the burden on the father's estate. At the same time, the dowry had to be large enough to attract—in effect, "purchase"—a husband with the highest social status. A marriage could reflect glory on the bride's kin, win them political allies and access to power, or increase the family's wealth. If a woman's family could not afford a high-status husband, she had to be satisfied with a lesser one who could be acquired with a smaller dowry. Even among the poorest ranks of the peasantry, a bride was expected to bring some goods to a marriage, if only a few pots or stools to furnish her new home.

The dowry technically remained the woman's property for life, but in fact it was managed by her husband. When the woman died the property was passed on to her heirs, female as well as male, if local laws permitted her to make a testament, or will, and name special gifts. In some regions of Europe, a wife might possess property in her own name in addition to the dowry. Sometimes that property was bestowed upon her by her father, who determined the value of the dowry. Again, depending on local custom, the woman might be able to pass the property along to her heirs when she died. Women were often entitled to use real estate (land), jewelry, and clothing that belonged to a male relative, who had the right to reclaim it as needed.

Rights for Jewish women

Unlike Christian women, Jewish women had some legal independence. Prior to the creation of ghettos that placed all Jews under the system of Roman law in Italy (see "Roman and Spanish Inquisitions" in Chapter 7), Jewish communities had their own laws. Women had the right to sign contracts, represent themselves in court, and initiate legal actions. A number of women were bankers and full members of partnerships. In Turin, Italy, a Jewish father's wealth was funneled directly into his daughter's dowry. The reasons for this practice were many, but mainly it was intended to protect family property. As a result, the woman holding the dowry occupied an enviable position. The middle-class status of most Italian Jews played a role in balancing power between men and women. Even the richest Jewish men could not acquire great wealth or elite social status because they were barred by society's restrictions on Jews. As a result of these restrictions, women had an opportunity to gain equal status with them.


A woman had virtually no role in choosing her husband. In the propertied classes most marriages were arranged by a woman's male kin, perhaps in consultation with her mother. Many women married men they barely knew or had never met. In most parts of Europe peasants of both sexes married fairly late (in their twenties). Among the upper classes, however, a teenage girl often married an older man (perhaps in his late twenties or thirties) who was already established in commerce, government, or aristocratic society. Sometimes a young woman married a man who was even more advanced in age and who had already been married. In these circumstances, it is difficult to know whether love played a role in the marriage. Many upper-class wives and husbands led separate lives because of the disparity in their ages, their lack of acquaintance prior to marriage, and their very different daily occupations. For instance, the husband might be involved in his business or in political activities while the wife's life was focused on the home. Companionship seemed to be more possible in marriages among the lower classes. Often spouses were engaged in the same kind of occupation—for example, they were both skilled craftspeople, or they operated a tavern or a shop together.

Marital problems

Preachers, humanists, and other moral instructors promoted the ideal of a close relationship between wife and husband. They thundered against adultery (having sexual relations outside marriage), bigamy (having more than one spouse), desertion, and abuse. Adultery was consistently viewed as a wife's crime—not a husband's—and a very serious one. In many locations, a husband was excused for killing his wife if she was caught committing adultery. In some places, such a murder was not even designated a crime. Among the wives of European royalty, adultery was considered treason (a crime against the state) and generally punishable by execution. Meanwhile, men regularly engaged in adultery, sometimes with concubines or mistresses who lived in the family home. Wives were expected to raise children from these illicit relationships. Such arrangements were more typical of high-status families. Among the poorer classes, marital problems were more often expressed through bigamy or desertion. A man who found marriage unsatisfactory might leave his parish and marry again in a more remote location. A man left his wife if he felt burdened by her, in which case the woman had no legal rights and she was reduced to dire economic conditions.

Abuse could be found everywhere, and among all classes. Wife-beating was permissible, as was the physical punishment of children and servants. Some moralists urged moderation and others deplored the use of beatings altogether. Men might, furthermore, imprison, starve, and degrade their wives and other family members. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, divorce was not available as a solution for a broken marriage. Among the upper classes, annulment (declaring a marriage invalid) was a possibility on grounds that the marriage had not been consummated (the couple had not had sexual intercourse), the couple were closely related kin, or there had been some flaw in the marriage ritual. Some Protestant reformers argued for divorce in cases of adultery or hopeless incompatibility. Their arguments were fundamental to later legislation permitting civil divorce.

Acts of cruelty by Jewish men in domestic relations are mentioned in documents of the period. Among these acts were broken engagements, abandonment, nonsupport, physical and verbal abuse, and the refusal to acknowledge or support a child born out of wedlock. A woman might threaten to bring the child to the synagogue (Jewish house of worship) or to pressure lay leaders to come to her aid. The rabbis of Catholic Europe were much less willing than the rabbis of Islamic countries to force a man to divorce his wife. This reluctance was a reflection of the Catholic belief that a marriage could never be dissolved. It was also further evidence that during the Renaissance women had no opportunity to extricate themselves from bad marriages.


The primary responsibility of all wives was the conception, bearing, and rearing of children. Women of child-bearing age spent most of their lives being pregnant, giving birth, and caring for children. Birth control was strongly discouraged. For women who wanted to terminate a pregnancy, abortions were sometimes performed. The method involved herbal remedies, recommended by midwife-healers, that posed great risk to the mother. Lactation (production of milk in a woman's breasts for nursing babies) frequently resulted in a period of infertility and relief from pregnancy, but when it did not, women often conceived anew within weeks of giving birth. Such a pattern is seen in the high birthrates in certain social groups—twenty or twenty-five children from one mother were not uncommon—and indicate that a woman had an average of one child per year. Although wealthy people viewed frequent childbirth as desirable, the birth of a single child could be seen as excessive to a poor or unmarried woman who was unable to care for the baby. That situation often led to child abandonment or even infanticide (killing of babies).

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the infant mortality (death) rate was high throughout Europe. From 20 to 50 percent of all infants died. A high mortality rate up to age twenty was also frequent. It was not unusual for a woman who had given birth to eight or ten children to see only one or two of them reach adulthood. Women also risked dying in childbirth. The chance of death in any single childbirth event was about 10 percent—much higher over a lifetime in which a woman experienced childbirth several times. Mortality in childbirth was a leading cause of death among women, a great number of whom predeceased their husbands, who might proceed to marry one or two other wives. Moralists therefore used the possibility of death in childbirth as one argument for a woman to remain virginal and not marry.

Child rearing

A woman's responsibility for her healthy newborn infant varied according to social class. Poor women generally nursed (breast-fed) their own infants for about two years, but women in the upper classes usually did not. In elite circles arrangements were made, often by fathers, to send a child to live with a wet nurse. A wet nurse was frequently a lower-class woman whose own baby had died or who had recently weaned her own infant from the breast (ended breast feeding). Sometimes wet nurses weaned their own babies early so they could be paid to breast-feed the baby of an upper-class couple. Infants spent about one or two years with their wet nurses (female infants were perhaps weaned sooner than males) before returning to their mothers. In the meantime, the mothers might have gotten pregnant once again.

A mother was responsible for a child from the time of birth until the child reached the age of six or seven. At that point it was believed a child was capable of rational thought. Young children were taught skills and moral values by their mothers, except in some wealthy families where servants were given these responsibilities. Girls were kept closely confined and supervised, trained in household skills, and taught chastity, silence, and obedience. Boys were prepared for further instruction under their fathers, either by a school or tutor, or in apprenticeship (training for a craft or trade). Peasants trained male and female children in agricultural skills. In the case of the very poor, both male and female children were often sent out of the home at age eight or nine to work as servants in upper-class households. Virtually the only education they received was the early childhood instruction offered by their mothers.

When a mother of young children died, her children were reared by their father and his female kin, his servants, or his new wife. When a father died, his male kin took responsibility for rearing children. In his will he may have invited his widow to remain in the household to tend her children, or she might be welcomed in that role by her late husband's brothers or cousins. But children were not understood to belong to their mother. If she did not, as a widow, remain in her deceased husband's household, she would relinquish the care of her children to her husband's family. Generally she would not be able to claim her offspring as her own.


Widowhood presented difficulties not only for the widows (women whose husbands have died) but also for society. These difficulties involved issues of kinship and morality: To whose household did a widow belong? How could the behavior of a sexually experienced woman be controlled? A widow was faced with several possible fates. Depending on where she lived, she might remain in her husband's household, especially if young children survived. She might return to her father's household or to that of other male kin. She might also marry again, enter a convent (a house for religious women) or other religious community, or live alone. Competing interests surrounded the woman as this decision was made, and usually she had little say in the matter. Her birth family might wish her to remarry or to return, with her dowry, to their household. Her husband's family might want her to stay with them so that her dowry could continue to support their household. Church officials and social leaders would urge chastity upon a widow and express anxiety about her moral supervision. In Catholic regions, she might be urged to join a convent or religious community. Elsewhere she might be advised to remarry. Living alone was risky for a woman because it might signify that she was impoverished and or had been abandoned by her kin. If she had property she might become the object of suspicion. The Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1466–1536) argued that a self-sufficient widow could remain chaste and lead a productive life alone, but few people agreed with him at the time.

Women and religion

During the Middle Ages and the early part of the Renaissance, most European women were Catholics. Those who wished to devote their lives to the church entered convents. This situation changed after the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. Women who converted to Protestantism expressed their religious commitment as wives and mothers or as activists in the new faith.

Catholic holy women

Catholic women entered convents for a variety of reasons. Some were adults drawn to the religious life; some were widows or refugees who sought a safe haven or were placed in safety by male kin; some were young girls placed by their kin permanently or temporarily in convents also for safekeeping, or as an alternative to marriage. Some of these women subsequently made permanent vows. Although some women lived in convents because of a sincere religious vocation, others were there to bide their time, or despite their own personal choice or interest. Most women who resided in convents for any of these motives came from propertied and even aristocratic families. Convents required an entrance fee termed a "dowry," just as in a marriage. During the Renaissance, in some areas (such as the wealthier Italian cities) the number of women entering convents because of their family's economic interests skyrocketed.

Benvenida Abravanel

Under Jewish law, women had many more rights than Christian women. Yet even Jewish women who had converted to Christianity (converted Jews were sometimes called New Christians) enjoyed more independence. An example is Benvenida Abravanel (born 1473), a Portuguese New Christian who settled in Italy and was a teacher to the daughter of the Spanish viceroy (royal governor). As a widow, Abravanel ran a loan-banking business, served the Medicis (the family of the dukes of Florence and Tuscany), contributed to charity, and was active in Christian causes. The Jewish playwright and poet Judah Sommo called Abravanel a "Princess."

In addition to those who sought to pursue a religious vocation in the convent there were others whose quest for holiness led them elsewhere. They joined communities of religious women that were not strictly cloistered, or separated from society. These women sought the less strict life because they preferred it or because their families did not provide the dowries necessary for admission to a convent. Nevertheless, they were supervised in some manner by members of the male clergy. A few others pursued saintly careers as single individuals. They followed strict routines of religious observance while living in the household of a male. Many were wives or widows who did charitable work with hospitals or religious orders. The Catholic Reformation greatly curtailed this kind of religious expression. Women seeking to follow religious vocations were largely limited to the single option of the convent. At the same time, they were placed under even stricter regulation by male clergy. Holy women were closely scrutinized for evidence of heresy, witchcraft, or for pretending to be sacred.

Protestant reformers

The hold of the patriarchal family on women increased under Protestantism. Both men and women followers of this faith were faced with a new set of beliefs and standards of moral behavior. For women, it meant the disappearance of convents, which had been disbanded in Protestant countries. Convents still provided alternative living situations for unmarried or widowed Catholic women. A Protestant woman, however, was expected to live with her own family or her husband's family, under the supervision of men for her whole life.

Teresa of Ávila

Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582) was one of the great holy women of the Catholic Church. The founder of the Reformed Discalced (Barefoot) Carmelite Convent of San Jose, Spain, she is famous today for her mystical writings. She was born Teresa de Ahumada on a farm near Ávila, Spain. After a life-threatening illness she entered the Carmelite Convent of the Encarnacion (Incarnation), where she became a nun in 1537 and took the name of Teresa de Jesus. In 1554 Teresa experienced the first of several visions during which she saw a statue of the wounded Christ. She continued having visions and began writing her autobiography, later titled Life. When Teresa finished her book, she was called before the Spanish Inquisition, a church court set up to apprehend and punish heretics. The inquisitors told her to expand the book because they wanted to know more about her visions. She completed the longer version of Life in 1559.

By 1560 Teresa had made a decision to reform the Carmelites. She had long been troubled by the lax standards at her convent, and she wanted to return the Carmelites to strict observance of the original rules of the order. After much opposition and struggle, in 1562 Pope Pius IV granted her permission to start the Discalced Carmelites. Before her death she produced numerous books, which are now considered classics in mystical literature. Teresa was instrumental in reforming not only Carmelite convents for women but also Carmelite monasteries for men. She is credited with reviving Catholicism at a time when Protestantism threatened to bring down the church.

Grumbach and Zell promote reform

A few opportunities for female leadership emerged in the earliest days of Protestantism. Some female advocates of reform circulated their views in writing. Among them was Argula von Grumbach, who was born into an aristocratic and well-educated family near Beratzhausen, Germany. She was orphaned in 1509 while being educated at court in Munich. In 1516 she married Friedrich von Grumbach, an administrator for the Bavarian dukes of the Franconian town of Diefurt. She was then drawn to Protestantism, probably by Paul Speratus, a scholar and cathedral preacher who was a champion of church reform. Inspired by the pamphlets of Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther and other reformers, Grumbach immersed herself in reading Scripture (the text of the Bible). In 1523, after witnessing the mock trial of a student who was a follower of Lutheranism, she challenged Catholic theologians to a debate about their coercive conduct. When they refused to participate, she published a pamphlet that eventually went into fourteen editions. In six open letters to German princes and to officials in the cities of Ingolstadt and Regensburg, she outlined a reform program for society as well as the church. She also published a poem to defend herself against unfounded accusations that she had a sexual attraction to a man named Arsacius Seehofer. After 1524 Grumbach produced no more pamphlets, but she did exchange letters with Luther and the Lutheran theologian Andreas Osiander. She also promoted the Reformation locally. In 1533, three years after the death of her Roman Catholic husband, she married again, but she was widowed again in 1535. Grumbach's unpublished family papers give insights into such matters as early Protestant educational ideals and the legal and financial difficulties of widows.

A few Protestant women became lay (unordained) preachers. The best known was the German reformer Katharine Schütz Zell (c. 1497–1564), who worked toward religious tolerance as a writer, speaker, and adviser. In 1523 she created a controversy by marrying Matthäus Zell (1477–1548), a Catholic cathedral preacher and reformer. Katharine soon became known for her hospitality to reform leaders. She also took in refugees, attended to victims of the plague (an epidemic disease; see "Black Death" in Chapter 1), and visited sick people in jails. Zell kept in touch, by letter or in person, with many of the leading Protestant reformers such as Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) and Oecolampadius (also known as Johannes Huszgen; 1482–1531), who headed independent reform efforts. By the mid-1500s there were deep splits among Protestants because they could not reach agreement on a statement of faith. The Zells sided with radical groups (those who hold extreme views) that were pushing for the elimination of Catholic elements in Protestant doctrine (beliefs).

Between 1524 and 1558 Katharine published five works, including a defense of her husband. In 1557 she wrote an open letter to Ludwig Rabus, the Lutheran preacher in Ulm, who had criticized her radical views. In the letter she appealed to the common sense of the people of Strasbourg. She supported the efforts of radicals such as Zwingli and Kaspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig, both of whom had been guests in her home. Zell also expressed admiration for the Anabaptists (a Protestant group that advocated baptism of adults, not infants), whom she preferred to call Baptists. The Anabaptists were being persecuted as heretics by mainstream Protestants, however, and Zell was accused of heresy for supporting them.

Grumbach and Zell were members of the first generation of Protestant reformers. By the late sixteenth century women no longer participated as either critics or advocates of reform efforts and the movement was dominated by men. Many women among the persecuted sects, notably the Anabaptists, openly professed their faith and were executed by Protestant leaders. These women gained fame as martyrs.

Women in high culture

The role of women in "high" culture—the elite world of power, ideas, and artistic creation—was significantly expanded in the Renaissance era. A few women served as monarchs who were instrumental in shaping not only political events but also cultural developments. Cultivated women of the high middle class or aristocracy headed salons that spread new scientific and philosophical ideas and set standards of literary taste. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries women became increasingly active in the humanist movement, which was given impetus by salons. The participation of women in intellectual life represented a major advance: for two thousand years they had been excluded from such pursuits because they were denied access to formal education. The new humanist emphasis on the worth of the individual began breaking down traditional barriers. As a result, an unparalleled number of women became writers during the Renaissance era. There were hundreds and perhaps thousands of women authors, mainly in Italy, France, and England. After 1500 they were encouraged by the growth of the printing industry, which permitted women authors to deal directly with publishers and bypass male-dominated institutions such as universities.

Women writers contributed to the beginning stages of modern feminism (support of the equality of women with men), which gained momentum in the eighteenth century. Women also wrote poetry, romances, stories, novels, and plays, which they translated into other languages. A few women who were learned in Latin or Greek translated works of classical or humanist authors. In addition, they wrote diaries, family histories, and advice books. Women painters and illustrators also gained fame in the flourishing art world. Although women were prevented from entering the professions because of their lack of access to formal education, they did make contributions to the emerging field of medicine.

Women rulers, intellectuals, writers, and artists did not influence Renaissance culture so greatly as did their male colleagues. Nevertheless, women and their supporters were included in major social and political issues from the outset. Their participation contributed to changes in ideas about women's moral and intellectual capabilities, laying the foundation for the modern feminist movement. In this sense, there surely was a Renaissance for women.

Queens and queenship

During the Renaissance the question of whether women could or should be monarchs was a much-debated issue. Only a few women were actually reigning queens (those who occupy the throne), and those women became powerful rulers in spite of concerns about women monarchs. Even where laws limited women's right to inherit the throne, as in France and Aragon (a region of Spain), queens consort (wives of kings) still had considerable influence. Numerous regents, queen mothers, and kings' mistresses also performed a variety of official and unofficial duties. A regent was a queen consort who ruled in the absence of the king while he was on a mission to another country or in the place of a son who was too young to take the throne. A queen mother is the mother of a reigning king. A mistress was a woman who had an ongoing intimate, sexual relationship with a king who was married to another woman.

Reigning queens

Reigning queens had greater difficulties than male rulers. Every queen was expected to marry and produce male heirs to continue the dynasty (rulers in the same family line). The queen's selection of a spouse was especially controversial. It was difficult for members of a patriarchal society, in which husbands were heads of households, to distinguish between a woman's status as a private wife and as a public ruler. Some court officials feared civil war if she married one of her subjects, and others feared political problems if she wed a foreigner. Men dominated the royal bureaucracy as well as local offices. The general feeling was that a woman could not lead a government composed of men. For instance, in 1558 the Scottish Protestant reformer John Knox (1513–1572) asserted that a kingdom with a female ruler was like a monster with its feet where its head ought to be. Warfare created even more problems, for a woman did not fit into the traditional role of a military leader.

Two reigning queens, Isabella I of Castile (1451–1504; ruled 1474–1504) and Elizabeth I of England (1533–1603; ruled 1558–1603), responded to these difficulties in different ways. Isabella's marriage to King Ferdinand II of Aragon (1452–1516; ruled 1479–1516) in 1469 won acceptance because it led to the unification of their realms as the kingdom of Spain (see "Spain" in Chapter 3). Elizabeth lacked such a convenient choice. She succeeded her half-sister, Queen Mary I (1516–1558; ruled 1553–58), who had wed Philip II of Spain (1527–1598; ruled 1556–98) in 1554 (see "England" in Chapter 3). Elizabeth was aware of the discord that could result from a foreign marriage, so she was reluctant to choose a husband from another country. Political divisions among her advisers over the selection of a husband finally prevented her from marrying. The issue of a male heir to the throne therefore remained unresolved during her reign.

Elizabeth's status as a single woman did offer some advantages. Until the last years of her life she used the possibility of getting married as a bargaining tool in negotiations with other countries. As a queen married to a powerful king, though, Isabella had an easier time ruling a male-dominated system. In contrast, Elizabeth presented herself as both a male and a female monarch in public announcements and ceremonies. As she grew older, her subjects honored her with the image of the "Virgin Queen," which associated her with the Virgin Mary (mother of Jesus Christ). In warfare both queens assumed the role of warrior. Isabella accompanied the Spanish army on its campaigns to expel the Moors from Spain. In 1588, after Spain declared war on England, Elizabeth dressed in armor and gave a speech to her troops at Tilbury to inspire them to defeat the invading Spanish Armada (see "English defeat Spanish Armada" in Chapter 3).

Lower-ranking queens

Like other wives, queens consort had the responsibility of giving birth to a male heir. If they failed in this duty, their husbands might divorce them or even have them executed. An example was Anne Boleyn (c. 1507–1536), the wife of King Henry VIII of England (1491–1547; ruled 1509–47) and the mother of Elizabeth I. Henry ordered that Boleyn be beheaded when he discovered that she was having an affair. As consorts, they also had symbolic power, which was especially strong if they had been honored and blessed in a coronation ceremony. Without ruling authority, their influence depended on several factors. Foremost was the survival of their male children, for whom they might serve as regents. Queens consort also exerted control if they possessed strong personalities or came from royal lineage. The latter was especially true for a woman coming from a foreign dynasty who could advance the interests of her family at her husband's court.

Regents had some authority to govern, since they acted on behalf of rulers who were relatives. One example was Mary of Hungary (1505–1558; ruled 1531–55), who controlled the Netherlands for her brother, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500–1558; ruled 1519–56). Another was Catherine de Médicis (1519–1589), who ruled France for her minor sons (see "France" in Chapter 3). Regents with the least power were queens consort, who served for short durations during their husbands' absences. For instance, Katherine Parr (1512–48), the last wife of Henry VIII, was regent for three months in 1544 when the king was on a military campaign in France.

Queen mothers could provide much-needed stability during times of emergency. Louise of Savoy (1476–1531) ruled France for her son, King Francis I (1494–1547; ruled 1515–47), on two occasions. In 1515 she served as regent while Francis opened the second phase of the Italian Wars (1494–1559), a conflict between France and Spain over control of Italy (see "Italian Wars dominate Renaissance" in Chapter 2). She was regent again in 1525 after Francis was defeated at the Battle of Pavia in Italy and was held prisoner in Spain. Sometimes women who were not officially members of a royal family wielded power by manipulating the actions of their monarch lovers. An example was Diane de Poitiers (1499–1566), the mistress of King Henry II (1519–1559; ruled 1547–59) of France. (A mistress is a woman who has a continuing sexual relationship with a married man who is not her husband.) She influenced the decisions of the king, virtually replacing his wife, Catherine de Médicis, as queen.

Reigning queens, regents, and even kings' mistresses were in the position to patronize artists, musicians, humanists, and poets. One of the greatest patrons was Margaret of Austria (1480–1530), who served as regent of the Netherlands (1507–15; 1519–30) for her nephew, the future Emperor Charles V. She collected a fine library and supported outstanding artists and musicians. Women who married rulers of foreign realms also could introduce political and economic connections and new trends into their adopted lands. The activities of these women established their importance as political and cultural leaders. They remained influential in France, where they had helped to forge absolutism (absolute power invested in one or more leaders). Reigning queens made the greatest gains in England, but the increased power of Parliament (main ruling body of Great Britain) led to a weakening of royal control by the seventeenth century.


Women began making important contributions to Renaissance culture through their participation in salons. A salon was an intellectual and literary discussion that became popular in the 1600s. It was held at a royal or noble court and headed by an aristocratic or high-born woman called a salonnière. The terms "salon" and salonnière were introduced in the nineteenth century. During the Renaissance salons were known as ruelles (companies). Many women who headed and attended these gatherings exchanged ideas, then published their views in books and pamphlets.

Early forms of the salon could be found in northern Italy in the 1400s. Examples were literary gatherings in Brescia, where the humanist scholar Laura Cereta (1469–1499) presented her essays, and discussions headed by Marchioness Isabella d'Este (1474–1539) at her famous court in Mantua. Similar events were held in convents, where women could more easily express their views without the fear of ruining their reputations. Other pioneers of the Renaissance salon were French noblewomen Madeleine des Roches (c. 1520–1587) and Catherine des Roches (1542–1587) in the city of Poitiers. One of the first salons was the chambre bleue (blue room) established by the French hostess Madame de Rambouillet (also known as Catherine d'Angennes; 1588–1665) at her town-house in Paris in the 1630s. Devoted to literature and cultured conversation, Madame de Rambouillet's salon had a strong influence on the development of French literature. The salon became especially popular in Paris, but such gatherings were also found in Berlin, Germany; Vienna, Austria; and London, England.

Diane de Poitiers

Diane de Poitiers (pronounced deh pwah-tyay; 1499–1566) was a French noblewoman and mistress of King Henry II of France. She wielded considerable power during the king's reign, virtually replacing his wife, Catherine de Médicis, as queen. In 1514 Diane married Louis de Brézé, the grand sénéchal of Normandy, and had two daughters with him. Her exceptional beauty, which she maintained until late in life, gained her entry to the court of King Francis I. In 1530 she met Henry when he and his brother returned from serving as hostages in Spain for their father's ransom. After her husband's death in 1531, she became the love of Henry's life. Although she was twenty years older than Henry, he remained devoted to her until his death. She also maintained friendly relations with Catherine de Médicis.

When Henry became king in 1547, Diane received the title of the duchess of Valentinois; she also received the château (large country house) of Chenonceau. At court she was instrumental in manipulating the principal rivals for the king's favor, Anne de Montmorency (1493–1567; in this case Anne is a male name) and the family of Guise. She took the side of whichever party seemed to be most powerful at the moment. Diane also supported Henry's anti-Protestant policies. She extended patronage to the group of poets known as the Pléiade, who honored her with many laudatory poems. Her beauty and position also made her the subject of numerous artworks, including the famed Diana the Huntress attributed to the painter Jean Goujon (c. 1510–1568). The painting was placed in her second château, Anet, which had been reconstructed and was one of the highlights of mid-sixteenth-century French Renaissance culture. After Henry was killed in a jousting tournament (a game of combat with lances), Catherine de Médicis took Chenonceau away from Diane, who retired to Anet.

The salon was only one form of intellectual discussion attended by women. They were also welcomed at coffeehouses, academies, clubs, and masonic lodges (meeting places for the Free and Accepted Masons, a fraternal organization). The salon was different from these other social gatherings, however, in that it attracted a diverse range of participants and featured a varied program. It was also held in a more intimate setting, at the home of the salonnière. She presided over the conversation and set standards of etiquette (proper manners) to prevent disruptions and rivalries during the discussion. For the salonnière, the salon might serve as a means of education or a way to gain influence in society. The image of a salonnière was borrowed from such works as Il cortegiano, or The Book of the Courtier (1528), by Baldassare Castiglione (1478–1529), which defined proper manners for male and female members of the court (see "Life at court" in Chapter 11). Castiglione portrayed women as delicate, sensitive, beauteous, and selfless, and the salonnière was expected to possess these qualities. Nevertheless, the prominence of women afforded by salons was one of the most criticized aspects of these gatherings. The French writers Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) and Molière (also known as Jean-Baptiste Poqueline; 1622–1673) were the best-known critics. They lamented that placing salons in the hands of women threatened not only manly virtues but also the seriousness of intellectual work and the stability of society.

New ideas promoted

The salon was a place where writers might gain patronage for advancing their careers, either from the social elite with whom they mixed there or from the salonnière herself. Events held at a salon provided a forum for introducing new knowledge to a nonlearned audience. Authors read their writings aloud and commented on one another's work. Salons featured debates and dramatic performances and emphasized the art of conversation. Intellectual innovations and technical advances were worded in clear terms that were understandable to the nonlearned audience. This technique facilitated the transformation of new ideas into accepted ways of thinking.

The subject matter of salon discussions varied over time and from place to place. In seventeenth-century Paris, for instance, salon gatherings were devoted to refining the language and promoting style and clarity of expression. Typical topics of discussion were the nature of love, marriage, and patriarchal authority. Several literary genres originated or were developed in these social settings. Among them were the portrait, novel (a long prose story about human experiences), maxim (a wise saying), occasional verse (a poem composed for a specific occasion), and newsletter. A number of women who participated in seventeenth-century salons published their own writings, many of which incorporated themes and conversations common to salons. These authors included the poet and novelist Madeleine de Scudéry (often known as Sappho; 1607–1701) and the novelist Marie-Madeleine de La Fayette (1634–1693). Scudéry is best known for Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus (1649–53) and Clélie (1654–60). La Fayette's works included La Princesse de Montpensier (1662), Zayde (1670), and La Princesse de Clèves (1678). By the eighteenth century, however, topics pertaining to women became less popular and women engaged in intellectual discussions less frequently.


The activities of Italian women humanists led to the beginning of the modern feminist movement. In the mid-sixteenth century feminists appeared in France. Among them was Louise Labé (c. 1524–1566), a poet who urged women to take up scholarly pursuits. Other notable feminists were Madeleine des Roches and Catherine des Roches, whose salon was known as the school of learning or academy of honor. The salon was attended by humanists who encouraged the Rocheses to pursue their studies and publish their work. Among the first feminists in England were Jane Anger, Ester Sowernam, Rachel Speght (born c. 1597), and Constantia Munda. Although these writers identified traditional spiritual virtues with women, they saw men as also being capable of such qualities. Such traditional virtues included modesty, gentleness, selflessness, and piety (holiness). Their work helped promote the concept of androgyny (having characteristics of both sexes). A number of women in London from the 1570s until the 1620s acted out their androgyny through cross-dressing (wearing men's clothes) and were often referred to as hermaphrodites (people who have both male and female reproductive organs). In January 1620 King James I (1566–1625; ruled 1603–25) ordered ministers to preach against cross-dressing in their sermons. The following month a treatise titled Hic mulier, or, The Man-Woman was published, reaffirming the idea that women have a fixed nature.

Similar radical stirrings were in the air in seventeenth-century France. Louise-Marguerite of Lorraine, princess of Conti established a salon-in-exile at her château at Eu. There she wrote her memoirs of the court of King Henry IV (1533–1610; ruled 1589–1610) and read them at her salon. She then handed the manuscript over to writers in her circle, asking them to rewrite it for publication as a novel. This practice became a pattern crucial to the early history of the French novel. The novels created at Eu used a historical setting to develop plots composed equally of political and amorous adventures. They were written by men and women alike, but a woman's name was attached to each.

In the 1620s, 1630s, and 1640s—a wartime period in France called the Fronde—the femme forte (strong woman) emerged in French literature. The femme forte was portrayed as a Christian Amazon (mythical woman warrior) fighting, hunting, shooting, and riding. She dressed like a man while engaging in these pursuits. During these years Madeleine de Scudéry published Artamène, ou legrand Cyrus, which was initially a political novel. As the Fronde ended, novels focused on intellectual matters through dialogue. The years 1653 through 1660 were important in establishing a change from the femme forte to the précieuse (woman lay intellectual). The novels of Scudéry and others chronicled the salon life of intellectual conversation.

Three Italian women also expressed strong feminist views. Lucrezia Marinella was the first female writer to confront male authorities directly. In La nobilità et l'eccellenza delle donne, co' diffetti e mancamenti de gli huomini (The nobility and excellence of women, with the defects and vices of men; 1600) she responded to I donneschi difetti (The defects of women; 1599) by Giuseppe Passi. Refuting Passi's charges that women are weak and depraved, or evil, by nature, Marinella gave examples to show that women are more virtuous than men. In a second edition of her work the following year, Marinella criticized the negative views of women portrayed by the Italian male writers Boccaccio, Sperone Speroni, Torquato Tasso, and Ercole Tasso. All of these men, she said, made assumptions about all women on the basis of the behavior of one woman. Another Italian woman writer, Moderata Fonte, published Il merito delle donne (The worth of women; 1600), in which she used the voices of seven noblewomen to document female inequality in Venice. Inequalities included no opportunities for education, mistreatment by men, and lack of access to dowries. A third Italian feminist writer was Arcangela Tarabotti (1604–1652), whose La tirannia paterna (Paternal tyranny) was published after her death as La semplicità ingannata (Innocence deceived; 1654).

In many of these texts women began to see themselves as actors who must shape their own destiny. Before the end of the seventeenth century European feminists had developed a consciousness of themselves as a group. In 1792 the English author Mary Wollstonecraft (later Mary Godwin; mother of author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley; 1759–1797) wrote Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in which she called for equal rights and education for women. Historians note that Wollstonecraft's work would not have been possible without the efforts of her feminist forebears in the Renaissance.

Querelle des femmes

An important part of Renaissance feminism was the querelle des femmes. The phrase means "the woman question" and refers to the literary debate over the nature and status of women that began around 1500 and continued beyond the end of the Renaissance.

The German physician and philosopher Heinrich Agrippa of Nettesheim (1486–1535) brought the woman question to center stage with Declamatio de nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus (Declamation on the nobility and preeminence of the female sex; 1529). He dedicated the work to Margaret of Austria, governor of the Netherlands. Since the declamation was soon translated into English, French, German, and Italian, Agrippa's ideas were repeated endlessly by a broad spectrum of writers. Arguing that women were better off in the ancient world, he reinterpreted biblical, Greek, and Roman texts to "prove" women superior to men. Agrippa reread the Bible to show, among other things, that men and women were created equal in soul and that the New Testament makes it clear that women not only prophesied (spoke as if divinely inspired) in public but also served as church leaders.

Perhaps even more controversial was Agrippa's contention that the oppression of women was based not on their biological nature but instead on social tradition. Although he did not see women as being inferior by nature, he did not advocate an expanded social role for them. Castiglione also took up the woman question, in Book Three of Book of the Courtier. While acknowledging that male sovereignty places a limit on women's freedom, he never challenged the male right to this sovereignty. Much more pro-woman was the Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto (1474–1533), who wrote Orlando Furioso (Mad Roland; 1532), which is considered the greatest epic (long) poem of the Italian Renaissance. In this work of forty-six cantos (major divisions) he raised questions about whether women can be chaste (he answered "yes" in cantos 4 and 5), whether women are morally inferior to men ("no," cantos 27 to 29), and whether men have a greater potential for depravity than women ("yes," cantos 42 and 43). Ariosto urged women to write their own history instead of depending on men to do it for them, an idea picked up in Italy by Luigi Dardano and in France by François de Billon and Guillaume Postel.

Should women be rulers?

Discussion of the woman question in England was initially based on whether women should be rulers. In 1523 the Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives (1492–1540) wrote De institutione foeminae christianae (Instruction of a Christian woman). At the request of the queen consort Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536), Vives's work was translated from Latin by Richard Hyrde in 1540 for the guidance of her daughter Mary Tudor (future Queen Mary I). On the basis of Vives's views it was concluded that Mary should not govern because women are weak, though Hyrde tried to put Vives's work in a more positive light. In Defence of Good Women (1540) the English humanist Thomas Elyot (c. 1490–1546) argued against Vives, saying that women can rule as well as men, though they should do so only under special circumstances.

In 1558 the Protestant reformer John Knox lashed out against women rulers in First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. At the time Catholic women occupied the throne in three countries—Catherine de Médicis was queen consort in France, Mary of Guise (1515–1560; regent 1554–59) was regent in Scotland, and Mary I led England. Knox's work appeared, at the time, as a Protestant, Elizabeth I, became queen of England, but he made the issue a critical one thereafter. In 1559 John Aylmer (1521–1594) responded to Knox with Harborowe for Faithfull and Trewe Subjectes. Aylmer contended that Elizabeth ruled by divine intervention—that is, God had decreed that she become queen because she was an unusually gifted woman, who possessed more intelligence and skill than other women. However, since God had specially chosen Elizabeth to rule, her reign should not be used as evidence that women should be monarchs in the future. The poet Edmund Spenser (c. 1552–1599) introduced a version of the same argument in The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), where Elizabeth is presented as being a unique person who was chosen by God (see "Literature" in Chapter 8).

By the end of the sixteenth century, writers had concluded that virtue was the same for both men and women. The question now became how to make this equality real, and during the seventeenth century the emphasis shifted to education. The Dutch humanist Anna Maria van Schurman (1607–1678) published a tract in the form of a logical discourse titled Dissertatio de ingenii muliebris ad doctrinam et meliores litteras aptitudine (Whether a Christian woman should be educated; 1638). As the first woman to study at a Dutch university, Schurman wrote that women who had leisure time could become scholars. Nevertheless, she did not see any role for women outside the home. At the end of her life she abandoned intellectual pursuits and became involved in the Protestant reform movement.

The French writer Marie de Gournay (1565-1645), who corresponded with Schurman, took a firmer stand. In Égalité des hommes et des femmes (The equality of men and women; 1622), Gournay argued for equality of mind between men and women and asserted that if women were educated as men are, they would excel to the same degree. In a later essay, Grief des dames (The ladies' grievance; 1626), she satirized the failure of men to take women seriously and to consider them as equals in conversation. Gournay won this last argument, for in the second half of the seventeenth century social conversation between men and women was generally accepted as morally appropriate and enjoyable. One of the best-known published dialogues of the querelle was De l'egalité des deux sexes (The equality of the two sexes; 1673) by François Poulain de la Barre. It consists of a conversation in which both women and men contribute much to the discussion.

Throughout the seventeenth century, however, insistence on the subordination of women in marriage remained firm. Indeed, a major argument for Queen Elizabeth's single status was that as a ruler she governed all men but if she were to marry she would be subordinate (as wife) to her husband. Neither men nor women who participated in the querelle were able to bridge the gulf between arguments for the equality of the sexes and the subordination of women to men in the political and social arena. The conclusions and problems of the querelle established the terms and arguments of the issue for the coming centuries.

Other women writers

Italian women writers continued to make contributions in the century after Christine de Pisan's death in about 1430. Among the most acclaimed was Vittoria Colonna (1492–1547), the "literary queen" of the Italian Renaissance, who was at the center of intellectual and political developments of her day. Widowed from an unhappy and childless marriage at the age of thirty-three, Colonna spent the remaining twenty-two years of her life traveling, writing, and attracting a wide and important circle of acquaintances. The most famous was the great Italian painter Michelangolo (1475–1564; see "Renaissance Art" in Chapter 8), with whom she shared a long and fruitful correspondence. Colonna's published works consisted of books of verse that explore love in its various forms. Laura Terracina (1519–c. 1577), a contemporary of Colonna, lived a solitary life in her native Naples. From 1548 through 1561 she published moral lamentations, poems of praise for her relatives and friends, and reminiscences of her early years as a member of the Neapolitan Academy of Incogniti (The Unknowns). Most importantly, she wrote a forty-two-canto poem titled Discorso sopra it principio di tutti i canti d' Orlando furioso (Interpretation of the first cantos of Orlando furioso; 1549). Another significant writer at the time was Moderata Fonte (1555–1592). Born into the Venetian nobility, she published religious poems and musical dramas in verse. She also wrote an important four-hundred-page prose work on women before her death at the age of thirty-seven.

Marriage for Fonte and other Italian Renaissance women proved somewhat stifling to their literary achievement. This problem did not apply to courtesans, who were freer to develop their intellectual and literary capabilities. (A courtesan was a prostitute, a woman who is paid to engage in sexual intercourse, whose clients were courtiers and other wealthy or upper-class men.) Veronica Franco (1546–1591) and Gaspara Stampa (c. 1523–1554) made major contributions to Renaissance love poetry. Tullia d'Aragona (c. 1510–1556), another upper-class courtesan, also established herself as a literary figure in her own right by publishing works of lyric poetry, epistolary sonnets, and the Dialogo della infinità di amore (Dialogue on the infinity of love; 1547).

In sixteenth-century France, love was also the theme of a few women who established themselves as writers. Margaret of Navarre (1492–1549), sister to the king of France, was an important Renaissance patron. She also wrote the great collection of stories known as the Heptaméron (1558). Women writers became especially prominent in England during the seventeenth century. Among them was Margaret Cavendish (1623–1673), who displayed great versatility and skill in her writings. The most famous writer of the late Renaissance period in England was Aphra Behn (1640– 1689). She earned an independent living by her plays, songs, translations, and an epistolatory novel, many of which were dedicated to female patrons.

"Mad Madge"

The English writer and intellectual Margaret Cavendish (1623–1673) wrote in the greatest variety of genres of any women, or even men, of the late Renaissance period. She sought fame through her works, but during her own lifetime she was a social outsider. Nicknamed "Mad Madge," she was ridiculed for her self-promotion, her willingness to debate famous male thinkers, and her strong feminist views.

Cavendish was born into a wealthy family from the Colchester area. In 1643, at age twenty, she joined Queen Henrietta Maria's court in Oxford. The following year, during the English Civil War (a conflict in which rebel forces overthrew the monarchy), she accompanied the queen into exile in Paris. By 1645 she had met and married William Cavendish. The couple remained in Paris until 1660, when the monarchy was restored in England. Margaret published Poems and Fancies, the first of many works, in 1653. She went on to write about natural philosophy (natural science; the study of such fields as physics, chemistry, and biology), two volumes of plays, fantasies, essays, letters, an autobiography, and a biography of her husband. She was criticized for her lack of training—she knew no foreign languages and did not have a classical or scholarly education—and her failure to produce polished works.

Cavendish was a complex figure. While she was a strong royalist (supporter of the monarchy), she published essays and letters critical of England's social hierarchy (class structure) and royal rule. She produced radical critiques of women's low social, political, intellectual, and legal standing, yet she often described women as weak, emotional creatures dependent on the goodness and competence of men. While others saw her as privileged, she often portrayed herself as an intellectual and social outcast. In the late twentieth century her works gained serious attention from literary scholars, historians of science, women's historians, and those studying women philosophers.

Jewish scholars and writers

Jewish women had to persevere against great odds to receive an education and be admitted into literary and spiritual circles. Rabbis (Jewish spiritual leaders) expressed significant ambivalence, or mixed feelings, toward Jewish women receiving education beyond the skills necessary for managing a household. They feared that additional learning would inflame the passions of women and therefore endanger their honor. During the sixteenth century, Jewish literature about the nature of women showed many similarities to the Christian querelles des femmes discussion of the status of women. Some Italian rabbis reacted strongly against giving women greater freedom and even advocated physical punishment of disobedient wives. Rabbi Azriel Dien (died 1536) expressed the view that "over his women, every man shall be ruler to his house and rebuke his wife" (Sheelot u-teshuvot, no. 6), making it clear that men did not always have their way.

Nevertheless, a few scholarly Jewish women emerged in sixteenth-century Italy. Among them were Diana Rieti and her sister Fioretta (Bat Sheva) Rieti Modena, who both knew the Torah (books of Jewish wisdom and law), the Talmud (Jewish traditions), the midrash (explanations of early Scripture), the works of the Jewish philosopher Maimonides (also known as Moses ben Maimon), and Kabbalah (also cabala; Jewish mysticism). Late in life they set out to live in Safed, a community of mystics in Palestine (present-day Israel), the Jewish equivalent of entering a convent. Other Jewish women served as teachers of Italian and even Hebrew to young girls, at least in the fundamentals of reading. Some Jewish women were called Rabbanit, a title of distinction for a woman who had attained a significant level of learning. They joined in rabbinic discussions and participated in healing and birthing. Educated Jewish women in Italy found opportunities to work as scribes and printers, and their contributions are preserved in the colophons (statements of publication information) of many books.

Some educated Jewish women became writers. Debora Ascarelli of Rome and Venice gained recognition for her rhymed translations of liturgical poetry from Hebrew to Italian. These works were completed in about 1537 and published in Venice in 1601 and again in 1609. It was the first publication by a Jewish woman. Another writer was Sarra Copia Sullam. She was born to a prominent Italian Jewish family in Venice and received an education that included instruction in Italian and Spanish. She gathered around her a salon of men of letters in exchange for financial backing, intellectual conversation, and brilliant letters. After being accused of denying the immortality of the soul, she sat down and in two days wrote a strong defense of her views. It was published as The Manifesto of Sarra Copia Sulam, a Jewish woman, in which she refutes and disavows the opinion denying the immortality of the soul, falsely attributed to her by Signor Baldassare Bonifaccio.


During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, European women worked in virtually every artistic field. The most numerous women artists were nuns, though they were rarely identified because they created objects and images primarily to honor God's glory. Historical records show that an extensive art industry was conducted by nuns and that convents were often artists' workshops. Nuns were cloistered (lived inside walled convents), so they learned their craft with limited outside instruction. For instance, Marguerite (or Grietkin) Scheppers, a professional limner who was not a nun, taught her art to Sister Cornelie van Wulfskerke, a Carmelite nun of Notre Dame de Sion in present-day Switzerland. (A limner was an artist who made illuminated manuscripts, that is, painted the pages of books with brilliant colors). Sister Cornelie, in turn, taught and collaborated with Sister Marguerite van Rye in illuminating missals (prayer books) and small books of music.

Another group of women artists were the daughters of artists. They learned their craft and perfected their skills under the guidance of their fathers. Among them were Deanna Mantuana, the daughter of Giovanni Batista Mantuana, and Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614), the daughter of Prospero Fontana. Mantuana learned engraving by copying her father's drawings, then used her skills to promote the architectural career of her husband, Francesco da Volterra. In 1575 she was authorized by the pope to make and market prints. Fontana came the closest to achieving professional status equal to that of male artists. Despite pressure to limit herself to painting portraits, she painted biblical stories and mythological figures.

A third category of women artists belonged to the lesser nobility (lower rank of the aristocracy). Members of the nobility—men and women alike—were discouraged, and some cases legally barred, from becoming artists because such a career was considered a form labor for the lower classes. A striking exception was Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1535–1625). The eldest of six children, Anguissola studied painting with the Italian artists Bernardino Campi (1522–c.1591) and Bernardino Gatti. Her father promoted her career, and in 1561 she became a lady-in-waiting (court attendant) to Queen Isabella I of Castile. In addition to producing portraits of the royal family and members of the court, she instructed the queen in the art of painting.

Women and science

During the Renaissance women participated in the background of the academic world of science. By the fourteenth century the university had become an important center for scientific learning, most notably the study of writings by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384– 322 b.c.) and the pursuit of learned medicine. Scholasticism (a scholarly movement devoted to combining ancient philosophy with Christian theology) had made Latin the language in which all discussions of knowledge took place (see "Scholasticism" in Chapter 1). Women were prevented from receiving formal education in Latin, so they were excluded from traditional intellectual pursuits. In addition, while there was no specific rule barring women from universities, the assumption was that the purpose of higher education was to prepare men for careers in the church or for professions such as law and medicine. The development of humanistic education outside of universities created opportunities for a few women to participate in conversations about knowledge. In northern Italy especially, learned fathers occasionally educated their daughters in Latin and Greek. Some women courtiers had access to a kind of learning equivalent to that of the university. They also enjoyed the company of physicians, philosophers, mathematicians, and engineers who increasingly came to the Renaissance courts in search of patronage for their projects.

Access to knowledge is not the same as full participation, however. While there were successful women writers and artists by the sixteenth century, it is difficult to identify any women who were known independently for their science. More typically, wives, sisters, and daughters of prominent natural scientists (astronomers, physicists, and chemists) participated fully in a scientific household. For example, the Danish nobleman and astronomer (scientist who studies planets, stars, and other heavenly bodies) Tycho Brahe (1546–1601) was assisted by his sister Sophie in observing the nova (new star) of 1572 (see "Astronomy" in Chapter 10). She also shared the secret of his elixir (medicinal remedy) to ward off the plague (an epidemic disease) and generally involved herself in scientific conversations at the Danish court. The Italian naturalist (biologist) Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522–1605) married his second wife, Francesca Fontana, for her learning as well as her dowry. She participated actively in the maintenance of his expanding natural history collection and in the preparation of his encyclopedia of nature. The English mathematician and magus (magician) John Dee (1527–1608) at times made his wife, Jane Fromond, the object of his experimental imagination, recording her menstrual cycle and reproductive activities. In all of these instances, women facilitated the work of men as part of their household responsibilities.

Midwives compete with physicians

Medicine was the one field in which Renaissance women enjoyed a greater degree of independence. Although women were not allowed to practice as physicians and surgeons, many communities relied on women healers for medicinal and herbal knowledge. In some instances, prominent practitioners (unlicensed physicians) such as the French midwife (one who assists in childbirth) Louise Bourgeois (1563–1636) circulated pamphlets about their treatment methods. They demonstrated that their experience rivaled academic knowledge of the human body.

Throughout the Renaissance many women became successful and sought-after midwives. Midwifery was more often practiced as a skill than as a trade or profession, but it was also a form of community service, particularly in more rural areas. The primary attendant at a birth might be an experienced and skilled midwife who had served an apprenticeship under a senior midwife. She could also be a friend, neighbor, or family member with some experience in these matters. Records indicate that on the European continent from the fourteenth century onward, midwives were employed by some municipalities to ensure care for their female residents. Midwives often testified as expert witnesses in matters of rape, abortion, infanticide (killing of infants), and illegitimacy, and verified the pregnancy claims of female prisoners standing trial.

Midwifery was first licensed and regulated in the towns of southern-Germany during the fifteenth century. Examinations were administered by a committee of physicians or women of high social standing as part of the licensing process. The growing web of regulations reflected a greater concern with the moral, rather than technical, qualifications of the midwife. These regulations often defined the midwife's place in the medical profession. For example, midwives were banned from prescribing drugs or performing surgery, and they were required to call for a learned physician in difficult cases. The movement to limit the activities of midwives came at approximately the same time that prosecutions for witchcraft (the use of magic to control evil forces) were occurring in Europe (see " Malleus Maleficarum triggers witch hunts" in Chapter 7). Some historians believe that midwives came under suspicion because they possessed what some considered to be dangerous knowledge associated with witches, specifically the use of herbal remedies that inhibited conception (becoming pregnant) and induced abortion (expelling a fetus from the womb). Nevertheless, examinations of trial records have shown that midwives appeared more often as expert witnesses than victims in witchcraft trials.

The practice of midwifery began to decline in the sixteenth century, primarily because male physicians were trying to establish medicine as a legitimate profession for themselves. They wrote numerous books in which they attacked midwives as being ignorant and making "popular errors"—that is, practicing outside the academic community. By the seventeenth century physicians were replacing midwives as experts in the delivery of babies.

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Women in the Renaissance and Reformation

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Women in the Renaissance and Reformation