Before one dwells on the question of the role of women in Renaissance, there are two debates that one needs to be well acquainted with. Firstly, the debate surrounding the use of the term “Renaissance” for the period in western European history that extended approximately from the fourteenth century in Italy to the late seventeenth century in Great Britain. Traditional scholars have described the Renaissance as a time of intellectual expansion and opportunity. The term, as Meg Lota Brown and Kari Boyd McBride write, literally means “rebirth” and refers to the rebirth of ancient or classical learning as well as the liberation of science, the arts, and the individual from the shackles of scholasticism and medieval church. But by this definition it would seem that among those living during that period only elite, particularly literate elite men, experienced Renaissance, and so the question that arises is, was there a rebirth for most people? More specifically, did women have a Renaissance? Modern scholars, therefore, characterize this period as early modern, a name that emphasizes the ways in which social, economic, and cultural features of modern life were beginning to emerge in this era. The term early modern, they believe, unlike Renaissance, allows one to understand that these changes affected everyone and not only the elite. One must, however, keep in mind that Renaissance occurred over a vast geographical area and it is natural to suppose that it had its regional variations.
The second debate concerns an unexamined use of the term woman as an entity. Brown and McBride write that there was no single, iconic woman. Gender was inflected by other social categories like class, race, nationality, religion, etc. For example, in many of their experiences and expectations of day-to-day life, elite women had more in common with elite men that they did with peasant women living within the same region. Therefore, when we write about the role of women in Renaissance, the discussion must be qualified by carefully attending to the markers of social identity. However, some generalizations on the role of women in Renaissance can be made because despite their differing experiences as a result of their class, faith, nationality, etc. what brings them together is the fact that their gender defined them, and shaped their circumstances profoundly. In the period of Renaissance, the governing discourses about gender, specifically highlighting ideals of womanhood, determined women’s household and maternal responsibilities and demanded their complete submission to men in all spheres. These discourses did not only exist in the realm of debate and literature, but had real consequences for the women of the period, however varied their social or economic status may be. The women of Renaissance together experienced attempts at limiting their education, repressing their sexuality, and confining them to the domestic sphere for domestic labor. But the very fact that such attempts were made means that women were breaking the barriers of morality being continuously forced on them. The focus should be therefore the significant influence women exerted on the economy, social structures, and culture of the period, despite constraints on their exercise of power.
Unfortunately, women’s limited opportunities, enforced dependence, and exclusion from most aspects of public life ensured that they did not create history in the same ways as men did but to locate women in the period, one must look not only in the public record but also in private or domestic artefacts such as wills, letters, advice books, and diaries. As Brown and McBride rightly emphasize, in many cases, the historical evidence of women’s existence is recorded only in terms of their relationship to males, so one must “listen to the silences” of these documents to locate women. What one finds on such careful examination is that women were not only contributors to the cultural achievements of the Renaissance, but they were crucial laborer, though often unpaid and always valued less than their male counterparts. The role of women in Renaissance can be, thus, divided into three themes – (i) Women as mothers, daughters, wives, widows, and domestic workers – the roles in which most Renaissance women passed their lives; (ii) Women as nuns, uncloistered holy women, saints, heretics, reformers and sectaries, and witches. A significant fraction of women associated themselves with the church, or were said to have committed themselves to such roles, specifically the witches; (iii) The exceptional women who became warriors, queens and patronesses, scholars, writers, and visionaries. In this paper, I am focusing only on the first theme.
Margaret L. King writes that motherhood would define the lives of Renaissance women and occupy most of their years. From their mid-twenties in most social groups, from adolescence in elite circles, they experienced a cycle of childbirth and nursing and childbirth again. Wealthy women bore more babies than poor women as the rich did not nurse their own children, they conceived again soon after each birth. Where fertility lagged, families died out. The situation was such that sometimes unproductive marriages would threaten the very survival of the ruling class of a country. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that humanists Leon Battista Alberti and Francesco Barbaro saw the ability to procreate successfully as a preeminent concern in the choice of a wife. Moreover, Martin Luther was of the opinion that even if women bore themselves weary, or bore themselves out (that is, died), that was the purpose that they existed for. To bear children was both a privilege, considering that women who had just borne a child was celebrated and pampered, and a burden, since the torment of childbirth was great. Often women would die in childbirth or they lived to face the death of the baby they had borne at such risk as child mortality was high. Neither was infanticide rare. Though sometimes forgiven or overlooked, infanticide was a serious crime, one that lead to frequent condemning of the woman who committed it and soon a rage against infanticide came to be associated with a rage against witches. More frequently, in a struggle for survival of the adults, children were abandoned rather than murdered. Nevertheless, whether with their families or abandoned to outsiders, those babies who survived were fed by breast, commonly for eighteen to twenty-four months; again women’s specific task.
With time, even the refusal of elite women to breast-feed came under scrutiny with Barbaro declaring that it was a mother’s natural duty to feed her infant at her breast, and it was the best food for the baby. However, husbands played a more important role in the decision of elite women not nursing as lactation having limited contraceptive effect could discourage the high rate of fertility in those circles. Moreover, sexual intercourse was forbidden and even feared during lactation since the mother’s milk was thought to be of the same substance as her menstrual blood. For these reasons, the children of the rich were fed from the breasts of the poor, the former being subject to perpetual pregnancy and the latter perpetual suckling.
As King writes, the daughters often entered the world unwanted, threatening the patrimony as their labor or wealth profited others, i.e., the families of their husbands or their masters. Moreover, their marriages usually required enormous dowry. Single unattached (to man or god) women were considered vulnerable to improper sexual advances, a matter of extraordinary gravity because of the value accorded to chastity in the economic and social system of the Renaissance since chastity assured future husbands of the purity of their line, the legitimacy of their heirs, and the reputation of their family. The wife, on the other hand, was expected to be a companion to her husband, yet was his subordinate. There was only one sphere where a domestic women exercised some power and that was she could make a will, and thereby dispose of her dowry. By this means, elite women at least, could help construct a future for their children. Though women bestowed their property upon sons preferentially, there are evidences that they also made bequests to daughters and other women kin. In matters of property, it was also said in the Renaissance period that “no wife could attain the social freedom available to some widows”. If her husband died first, a woman was sometimes able to acquire significant economic independence or power to dispose of wealth themselves, or bear it advantageously to second husbands. In some German towns, a widow was even able to carry on her husband’s public office – jailor, tax collector, and gatekeeper. This was, however, eventually restricted.
Lastly, as far as the role of women as domestic servants is concerned, as King writes, it was the poor women who swelled the ranks of laborer in household service. As rootless wage workers, they were likely to slide down the ladder of dishonor. In other words, they often got reduced to mendicancy and prostitution. A female worker found herself in the men’s world that consisted not only of her employer but also large number of male laborer, apprentices, and journeymen found in towns. Not usually having enough wealth for marriage, these men often sought sexual contact through other means, often causing rape. An alternative to such unpaid exploitation was paid prostitution.
In conclusion, in the above essay an attempt has been made to understand the role of women in Renaissance with particular reference to their role in the domestic sphere. It has been discussed how the term Renaissance used for the period may not be fully appropriate and the question that needs to be addressed is did women experience “rebirth”? Moreover, when we talk about the role of women in Renaissance who are we actually talking about? The elite women or the poor women? The women of Italy or the women of Great Britain? A more generalized opinion on their role in the domestic sphere during the Renaissance period based on the fact that all women, irrespective of any social and economic marker, were under subordination of men, has thus been attempted in this essay.
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