- Although obviously half of the population of Renaissance Eu-rope was female, the role of women in the high culture, especially the Latin-based academic culture and humanist movement of the period, was very limited, a generalization which is also true of political life, large-scale business enterprise, the fine arts (both music and visual arts), and even vernacular literature. Continuing the misogynistic cul-ture of medieval Europe, Renaissance society excluded women from any leading role in public life. One prominent student of the place of women during the period has stated flatly that for women, the Renais-sance was not a renaissance at all, but a period of declining status, and while this conclusion has been challenged, there is considerable evi-dence that in at least some respects, the restrictions on women's par-ticipation in society increased during the centuries (14th through 16th or early 17th) usually covered by the term "Renaissance."Women's proper role in society, as defined by most opinion in that age, was largely limited to the domestic sphere, and even in family life, both legally and actually, women were always supposed to be under the control of some male authority: first by the father, then by the husband, and if the woman were widowed, in many regions fi-nally by either male children or the male relatives of her deceased spouse. The course of a woman's life was clearly defined: first as daughter and virgin, then as wife and mother, and finally as widow. Only a wealthy widow had any real chance of being more or less in-dependent and in charge of her own life. Even in that case, her inde-pendence in many regions was greatly restricted by the property rights of her sons and her husband's kinsmen.Until the Reformation, women theoretically had the option of continuing to live in a virginal state by entering the monastic life. Since, however, most female monasteries expected postulants to present a dowry upon entry, in practice only women from relatively prosperous families had the option of becoming nuns. In the 13th and 14th centuries, especially in urban areas, informal communities of single women sprang up outside the monastic orders, but since such groups did not have official approval and were not subject to super-vision and control by male clergy, they often faced suppression by authorities who feared that unsupervised communities of females ei-ther would fall into heresy or would become prostitutes. After the Catholic Reformation became strong from about 1550, church au-thorities were even less tolerant of unofficial communities of unmar-ried females living together.Religion did remain one field in which some activity by women was socially acceptable, but almost always in a role clearly subordi-nated to control by the exclusively male clergy. There were a few ex-ceptions, such as the influential 14th-century Catherine of Siena, who became an outspoken agitator for reform of the church and was later canonized, but such figures were notable mainly for their rarity. In the first half of the 16th century, some devout Italian intellectuals were stirred by a quest for spiritual authenticity based on the Bible, a movement known as evangelismo. The poet Vittoria Colonna be-came a central figure among such a group of "evangelicals" at Naples (some of whom became Protestants while others became early leaders of the Catholic Reformation). But Colonna was not only a member of an ancient and influential Roman aristocratic family but also a wealthy woman who was widowed early in life, had no children, and never remarried, thus managing to establish an independent existence that was extremely rare for women in any part of Renaissance Europe.Despite their limited status in society, women did have some rights in theory and even in practice. The dowry that a woman brought into her marriage remained legally her property, and if the marriage were dissolved by annulment or the death of her husband, she had in the-ory a right to control that part of the total resources of her marital household. On the other hand, during the course of a marriage, actual administration of the dowry was in the hands of the husband, and if he dissipated it through ill fortune or bad management, the woman had no recourse. Women of the higher classes (royal, aristocratic, and bour-geois) were more closely controlled than peasant women or women of the poorer urban classes, because their marriages involved important political and economic relationships and valuable properties. While European brides were never purchased as was done in some cultures, the daughters of prominent families were married off by their parents (essentially, by their fathers), who used the marriages of daughters (and sons, too) in order to make political or business connections. Lower-class women, on the other hand, often had considerably more indepen-dence in choosing whom and when to marry, though the fundamental cause of this independence was that they were poor and hence their marriage did not involve the pursuit of extraneous material goals.In most parts of Europe, women of royal and noble families and also women of the wealthy business classes (especially in Italy, the most economically developed region) married young, in their early or mid-teens, and were given to husbands considerably older than the bride: upper-class Florentine males usually did not marry until their late 20s or early 30s. Among the lower classes, however, women of-ten deferred marriage until somewhat later and married men only slightly older than themselves. In part this was because poor girls of-ten had to work as household servants or in other common occupa-tions in order to save money for dowries that were modest but still re-garded as essential for successful establishment of a new household. Since no effective contraceptive methods were available, young wives could look forward to bearing many children. Wealthy families often regarded large families as desirable since the children's mar-riages could be used to promote the general interest of the father's family. Social historians have noted that in northwestern Europe from the mid-14th century (that is, after the Black Death), women of the peasant and artisan classes tended to defer marriage until their mid-20s, a practice that not only allowed them to earn money for their dowries but also had the practical effect (whether intended or not) of producing fewer offspring and hence fewer claimants to a share of the family's agricultural lands or urban workshop when one genera-tion gave way to the next.The role of women in the scholarly, artistic, and literary life that formed the center of Renaissance civilization was limited not only by the subordination of women to their family role but also by the un-availability of education for women. At every level of society, women had far lower rates of literacy than men, and this was espe-cially true in rural districts and among the poor. In the cities, women of the higher and middle classes had some opportunity to receive an elementary education in which they learned to read, write, and do simple arithmetic. But in the view of contemporary society, even this modest level of education was of marginal utility for women. What they had to learn was how to cook, sew, manage a household, rear children, and participate in religious devotions.As for any more advanced learning, only a handful of privileged women from the upper classes had a chance to learn Latin, the es-sential tool for participation in the humanistic studies of the Renais-sance. A few princesses were able to study in the palace schools cre-ated for the education of their brothers; of these, the humanist academies at the courts of Ferrara and Mantua were the best known, but only the daughters of the ruling prince and their closest companions were privileged to share the instruction. A somewhat larger number of women from noble and wealthy mercantile families had the opportunity to learn Latin and a few carefully selected (and morally proper) works of ancient Roman literature from tutors hired by their fathers, usually for the education of sons but occasionally for daughters alone. No university would have permitted a woman to at-tend its classes, though the issue was unlikely to arise since virtually no woman had the command of Latin expected of entering university students. The first recorded conferral of an academic degree on a woman did not occur until 1678, when Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Pis-copia, a member of a Venetian noble family, was awarded a doctor-ate in philosophy. Society in general opposed the very idea of a learned woman, since it had no use for such a creature. In any case, prevailing theory held that women's minds were inherently unsuited to intense intellectual effort. A learned woman, like a woman who claimed political authority, was viewed as something unnatural—a sort of monster.Two developments during the Renaissance centuries slightly miti-gated the exclusion of women from learning. First, the invention of printing in the second half of the 15th century gradually worked to spread literacy (at least in the vernacular languages) more widely through all levels of society. Urban women of the middle and patri-cian classes often were able to read and now had access to reading matter to a degree never before known in human history. Especially from the second half of the 16th century, as an increasing body of classical texts and other serious literature became available in trans-lation, both men and women who had been excluded from higher ed-ucation had access to books that presented information and ideas pre-viously available only to the learned elites. Second, while printing from the very first had made certain types of religious literature (mainly prayers, meditations, and lives of the saints) available to women, the Protestant Reformation emphasized the right and re-sponsibility of all Christians to read the Bible.From the time of its first leader, Martin Luther, Protestantism pro-moted the founding of schools open to all levels of society, to girls as well as boys, though the higher schools remained just as firmly closed to females as ever. These gains for women were limited. Women might read the Bible in Protestant regions, but except for the very early period of the Reformation (the 1520s), they were not allowed to discuss it in public or to preach it, and their reading was always sup-posed to occur under the guidance of their fathers or husbands.Even the few women who became truly learned found that if they married, they had lost their personal control over leisure for study since they were subject to the authority of their husbands. In addition, once married, they would be pregnant and engaged in child-rearing most of the time. For most learned women, continued study implied refusal to marry, and since in virtually all cases an independent life as a single person was unthinkable, there was seldom a niche in society where a woman could develop her intellectual interests while re-maining single. In countries that remained Catholic, there was theo-retically always the monastic option, but the reading and activities of nuns were supervised closely (especially after the Reformation) by the clergy and by monastic superiors.To the horror of conservative moralists, the vagaries of dynastic succession produced a few princesses who were not only well edu-cated but actually became rulers, such as Queen Isabella of Spain, Is-abella's granddaughter Mary Tudor, who ruled England briefly (1553-1558), and Mary's half-sister Elizabeth I, one of the greatest political figures of the 16th century. Though all of these women were educated and intellectually active, their deep involvement in politics kept any of them from pursuing an active literary and intellectual life beyond their early years.When the question turns to identifying serious female intellectuals, modern scholarship has been able to find very few women who were able to share actively in the scholarly and intellectual life of Renais-sance humanism and vernacular literature. All of the Italian women who excelled as humanist scholars or successful authors were privi-leged daughters of highly educated fathers. Examples are Laura Cereta, Cassandra Fedele, Lucrezia Marinella, Olimpia Morata, Isotta Nogarola, Modesta Pozzo and Alessandra Scala. Even these able and highly privileged women were denounced by conservative clergy and scholars, who in some cases publicly accused them of us-ing their studies as a cover for sexual relationships with men. When they tried to establish personal or epistolary contact with humanist scholars whose works they admired, they either received no response at all or were sternly admonished to guard their chastity—a quality which all their male counterparts (and the women themselves) re-garded as far more essential in a woman than any level of erudition.Earlier in time than these was Christine de Pizan, the daughter of an Italian physician at the court of King Charles V of France, who as a young widow was able to earn her living as an author of French ver-nacular works. She wrote an eloquent defense of the intellectual ca-pability of women if only they were allowed access to education. Ital-ian women generally led the way among female authors of vernacular literature. Most married women found that their obligations as wives and mothers effectively terminated their literary careers. Few unmar-ried women found it possible to live a single life devoted to study even if they could endure the isolation and hostility that such a career generated. Hence some of the most successful female writers of the Italian Renaissance were courtesans—that is, high-class prostitutes— such as Veronica Franco, Gaspara Stampa, and Tullia d'Aragona.France in the 16th century produced female vernacular authors of more respectable social status, such as Louise Labé, a talented poet from a modest artisan family; Margaret of Navarre, queen of Navarre and sister of King Francis I of France, who was active both as a patron and as an author of spiritual treatises and prose fiction; Madeleine and Catherine des Roches, a mother-daughter pair of poets belonging to the class of ennobled judicial officials; and Marie de Gournay, a close friend and literary executor of Michel de Mon-taigne. England did not produce female authors of real distinction until the second half of the 17th century, but the poet Aemilia Lanyer gained some success with her volume of poems in the first decade of the 17th century. Spain in the 16th century produced one major female author of spiritual works, the mystic and monastic re-former Teresa of Ávila, who was suspected of being a heretic or a fraud but was fortunate to have the wholehearted support of King Philip II and was canonized as a saint in 1622. Her career, however, belongs to the Catholic Reformation movement and not the Renais-sance. Though she was an inspiring writer on religious topics, she had a very modest educational background—no Latin and not much reading except for devotional literature.The most comfortable role for energetic and educated women of the upper classes was as patrons and admirers of male scholars and poets. Margaret of Navarre played this role in 16th-century France in addition to her own literary career. A number of female members of Italian princely families were patrons of writers and artists and cre-ated highly intellectual court societies. The Venetian noblewoman Caterina Cornaro, after beng pressured by the government of Venice into exchanging her rule as queen of Cyprus for nominal lordship of the town of Asoli in Venetian territory, became patron of an influential literary circle, including the ablest Italian poet of the early 16th century, Pietro Bembo. The duchess of Mantua, Isabella d'Este, daughter of the ruling prince of Ferrara, who as a girl was tu-tored in Latin and Greek by the headmaster of the famous court school at Ferrara, was the central figure of a brilliant circle of poets, humanists, and authors who made Mantua an important center of Re-naissance civilization. At the court of Urbino, the duchess Elisabetta Gonzaga created a distinguished society that is reflected in the most famous literary work describing the Italian court culture of the late 15th century, The Book of the Courtier by Count Balsassare Cas-tiglione. In early Tudor England, Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of King Henry VII, though not personally learned, was a generous patron of university education, strongly influenced by her spiritual adviser, Bishop John Fisher. Thus a handful of intelligent women privileged by high social status and great wealth were able to do much to shape Renaissance culture. Margaret of Navarre was the only one of these to become a literary creator in her own right, and even she lacked the Latin-based education that would have opened to her the ancient and modern literary works not available in translation.In the visual arts, no female artist of great reputation emerged until the second half of the 16th century, and in each case, the artist enjoyed unusual privileges that opened to her a career ordinarily available only to men. Sofonisba Anguissola, the first female painter to win a wide-spread reputation and to produce a significant body of work, was un-usual in that she was not the daughter of an artist. She was the daugh-ter of a Piedmontese nobleman who had her tutored by a skilled painter of Cremona. More typical of the few female painters was Lavinia Fontana, daughter of an artist from Bologna. The greatest female painter of the late-Renaissance (or baroque) period was Artemisia Gentileschi, daughter of a successful pupil of Caravaggio. She was trained at Rome, and an incident in her training illustrates why entry into an artistic career was regarded as perilous for a woman. At age 16 she was raped by an artist to whom her father had entrusted her for training in perspective, and although (unusually for the time) her fa-ther brought legal charges against the rapist and secured a conviction, the guilty man was let off with a light penalty.In Italy, but not in Northern countries like England, women were per-mitted to appear as performers on the stage, but since actresses were conventionally regarded as little better than prostitutes and were gener-ally controlled by male producers and directors, few of them achieved personal fame and respectability. One rare exception is the Italian ac-tress Isabella Andreini, whose contemporary reputation emphasized her high moral character as well as her abilities as a performer.Many of these outstanding women expressed in their own liter-ary and artistic works a keen awareness of the limitations that so-ciety placed on women. While they defied those limitations and demonstrated that women could become scholars, authors, and artists if given the chance, they often tended to justify their own activity by claiming that they had exceeded (rather than fulfilled) the capabilities of female nature.
Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. Charles G. Nauert. 2004.