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Did Women Have a Renaissance?

Updated on December 12, 2013
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“Did Women Have a Renaissance?” This question, posed as the title of a groundbreaking essay by Jean Kelly-Gadol, has been the subject of much debate among historians since the 1980s. Although Kelly-Gadol herself answers in the negative (19), conclusions among others have greatly varied, possibly in part due to the many different possible interpretations of what it means to “have a Renaissance.”

The Renaissance was a period of time ranging roughly from the end of the Middle Ages c.1300 to the beginning of the Enlightenment c.1700 and characterized by a number of developments in art, science, and culture, including the rise of humanism, the dawn of capitalism, and the development of modern states. Therefore, it would seem that everyone who lived in Europe during this period “had a Renaissance” in the sense that they were affected by the time in which they lived, most likely in positive and negative ways. However, presumably drawing on a common narrative of historical progress which defines the Renaissance as a time of positive change, Kelly-Gadol seems to define “having a Renaissance” as experiencing an expansion in personal liberty, establishing four criteria in order to evaluate whether or not this actually occurred for women, including “the regulation of female sexuality… women’s economic and political roles… the cultural roles of women in shaping the outlook of their society.. [and] ideology about women, particularly the sex role system displayed in… its art, literature, and philosophy” (20). Keeping these criteria in mind, for the purposes of this essay, I will define “having a Renaissance” as being positively influenced by the cultural developments of the time and/or possessing the power and freedom to affect them in some way, both of which I believe Renaissance women did, although certainly not to the same extent as Renaissance men.

In her essay, Kelly-Gadol employs largely literary evidence to suggest that women’s freedom and power declined greatly between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. She claims that the literature of courtly love prevalent in Medieval France presented a model of romantic love outside of patriarchal marriage in which the knight served as a vassal to his lady (30), thereby presenting “an ideological liberation of [women’s] sexual and affective powers” that must have reflected a society in which women could wield considerable power and in which concern for illegitimacy was far less than it would become later, in the Renaissance (26). According to Kelly-Gadol, women like Eleanor of Aquitaine would have enjoyed far less freedom and security their position had they lived in a later time and place, such as Henry VIII’s England (27). By contrast, the culture of Renaissance Italy, ruled by despots or the urban bourgeoisie, made it far for difficult for women to maintain power, and when women did successfully rule in this time, it was generally the result of legitimate inheritance, a vestige of feudal times in which women held more power, as was the case with Queens Giovanna I and II of Naples (31). Female rulers such as Caterina Sforza who gained power via the more Renaissance route of opportunity and personal ambition had much more difficulty maintaining their position (31-2), and accordingly, women were not expected to directly hold positions of power in this new and volatile political climate, but were rather encouraged to fulfill a more ornamental role (33).

Kelly-Gadol’s summary of women’s influence in the Middle Ages as compared to the Renaissance is limited by several factors. First, it relies largely upon literary evidence in its conclusions about women’s power in the Middle Ages; second, it is geographically very specific, leading particularly to question whether the difficulty women experienced maintaining political power in the republics of Italy was representative of more traditionally-ruled states elsewhere in Europe; and third, it focuses only on the nobility. Therefore, it may be fruitful to consider other scholarship in order to draw on more diverse evidence, a wider geographical area, and a more inclusive sampling of women.

In what may be a better illustration of women’s actual power than literary sources alone, Christiane Klapisch-Zuber’s “The ‘Cruel Mother’” and Stanley Chojnacki’s “The Power of Love: Wives and Husbands” draw on Renaissance Italian ricordi and wills in order to explore Renaissance women’s financial situation as illustrated by the disposal of her dowry. Although their interpretations of women’s situation are skewed in different directions, with Klapisch-Zuber focusing on the unfair pressure placed on women to choose between loyalty to their natal kin and loyalty to their children and in-laws in the allocation of her assets (131) and Chojnacki focusing on the increased power that the period’s larger dowries gave women in their marriages (157), both works demonstrate that women possessed a substantial amount of economic influence. Even Klapisch-Zuber’s reflections on the injustice of the conflicting pressures placed on women to choose among their loyalties reveals that women did indeed have some amount of choice, and enough power to cause their relatives to court their interest and favor.

Beyond this economic power, in her “Mothers of the Renaissance,” Margaret M. King suggests that women may have had a covert role in shaping their culture through their influential role in raising their sons, with some mothers pushing their sons toward political power, some towards love of learning, and some towards the establishment of certain religious convictions (226). Notable examples include Catherine de Medici, who outlived all three of her sons and shaped each of their policies as Kings of France (227); Johannes Kepler's mother, who took him to see a comet at the age of six (233); and Susannah Wesley, whose religious lessons to her son John greatly informed and influenced the Methodist religion (236). Although these women may not have played a deliberate role in the development of Renaissance culture, history would most likely have turned out very differently without their influence.

Finally, expanding beyond the exceptional cases of nobility and the mothers of famous rulers and innovators, Judith M. Bennett provides further illustration of the economic situation of women, this time not so optimistic. Rather than insisting, as Kelly-Gadol does, that women’s situation worsened between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance or, as Chojnacki says, that women’s influence in some ways increased during the same period, Bennett suggests that women’s work remained in many ways remarkably similar (155). In both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Bennett writes that women’s work was low-skilled, with smaller benefits than men’s, regarded with less esteem, and took less of a priority than the work of her husband (158). From this evidence, it may be inferred that whatever the changes in the situation of the elites, that of common women remained in many ways largely unchanged.

Although Kelly-Gadol concludes otherwise, the above evidence seems to indicate that upper class women did indeed have a Renaissance, at least as the term is defined by some of her criteria, such as the possession of economic power, as illustrated by the financial clout of women’s dowries, and the ability to influence the outlook of their culture, as seen in the influence of mothers on their children. Undoubtedly, their power and ability to influence their culture was not as great as that of their male contemporaries, but it was there. However, the case of lower class women seems less certain. Without access to the education or financial resources available to their wealthier contemporaries and working under very similar conditions to their medieval counterparts, these women seem to have been both less influenced by and less able to influence the developments of the Renaissance. Interestingly enough, the same could probably be said of their lower class male counterparts.

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