Did Women Have a Renaissance?

Updated on May 17, 2018
Source

“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.

Questions & Answers

    Comments

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      No comments yet.

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: "https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr"

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)