Women of the Renaissance

The definition of the Renaissance is usually confined to literary and religious spheres of society, however there were strong cultural impacts that forever altered the role of women in developing civilizations. In the Renaissance there was a growing struggle for a return to classical learning, but unlike previous philosophical movements, men were not alone in their journey for knowledge and power. Women of the Renaissance by Margaret King details the role of women in their families, society, and the academic world during the dawning of the Renaissance.

According to King, the Renaissance marks the first time in history that women began to struggle against the boundaries and stereotypes in which they served. As a result of the Renaissance there was an increased importance placed upon the unique potential of the individual. In contrast to the Middle Ages, Renaissance individuals sought after a more developed level of personal fame. Artists and authors became famous by their names rather than their works. Due to this rise in individualism, women were afforded the opportunity to make themselves known.

Because of this new emphasis on individualism, far more complete records exist today of artworks produced by women in sixteenth-century Europe than in any other earlier eras. The obstacles placed on aspiring female artists were far more difficult to overcome than for their male peers. Cultural beliefs about women were slow to change during the Renaissance, and many artisan guilds purposely discriminated against women. It is not surprising that the few women were able to overcome social barriers such as a lack of classical training, but nonetheless the Renaissance is responsible for producing some of the first well-known female artists.

Although there is a rise in female artists such as Sofonisba Anguissola and Artemesia Gentileschi, the subject matter that they painted remained stagnant until much later in history. Most of the Renaissance paintings done by females are either display a domestic environment or tell a biblical story. This continuity illustrates that women were expected to remain within the domestic and Christian realms at all times. Also, the stagnancy of subject matter also suggests a lack of education about the outside world – a point that King returns to often. The desire to become famous in a male-dominated academic world was closely linking to education.

Although there had numerous advances in fields of science, mathematics, and literature, women were generally excluded from any type of academic learning. According to King, their education still consisted of “needles” “spindles” and “subjugation” (King, 180). However, there was the beginning of integrated elementary education for boys and girls. In Florence in 1338, Giovanni Villani reported 8,000-10,000 young children were learning basic reading and writing skills (King 168), but none of those girls would advance onward to learn mathematics or sciences.

If a young girl was lucky enough to receive some basic schooling, she learned only necessary skills before returning to her mother’s care to learn about domestic life. Mothers were responsible for educating their daughters in matters of cooking, cleaning, and sewing. In general, girls spent the majority of their adolescents learning how to become good wives whereas young boys were taught how to become civic leaders and philosophers. Throughout the Renaissance some women were educated by their fathers, but this was rare.

A prime example of highly educated and influential Renaissance woman is Christine de Pisan, the first woman in history to “live by the product of her pen” (King, 219). De Pisan was a Italian ward of the French king Charles V, and later in her life she wrote his official biography. De Pisan was widowed at age 25 and thus supported her family by writing novels and poems. The majority of her work is centered on defending the rights and heroics of women, and she wrote often about the importance of educating women.

Because Christine de Pisan wrote that women were of equal intelligence to men, King uses her as an example throughout Women of the Renaissance, and in fact Christine de Pisan is still considered a role model too many female French academics. In Chenonceau – the chateau of five queens – there are several mentions of de Pisan’s influence on powerful women such as Catherine de Medici. While Christine de Pisan fought for equal rights of women in the fields of education and art, in many cases, extended education was little more than plot to elevate a daughter’s marriage potential.

Young women were often considered worthless unless they could provide a beneficial marital alliance with a powerful or wealthy husband. One woman that was educated soley to increase her marital appeal was Cassandra Fedele. Her father recognized her remarkable intelligence and fervor to learn, but he taught her only because he wanted to market her as a scholarly potential wife (King, 198). The lack of education for women served an efficient method of oppression because women were viewed in two main roles: mother and wife. An educated woman could make decision regarding her own well-being as well as that of her children.

In a culture where men are supposed to be the right hand of God, women were not expected to challenge authority or make a name for themselves in the academic world. King dedicates the first part of her book to the Renaissance family, and thus incites several strong points of argument about the subservience of women in their own families. Although she agrees that real love did exist (King, 37), she argues that even in love matches, the husband was still the greater part of the union. A true example of a real love can seen in the marriage of King Henry III and Louis of Lorraine.

Following the assassination of her husband by the monk Jacques Clement on August 1st, 1589, Louis entered a phase mourning that lasted for the rest of her life. She wrote countless selections of prose and poetry proclaiming her love and great despair at the loss of her husband. Although this story is quiet romantic, it is extremely rare to find such a happy match. The majority of marriages were arranged for political and/or financial gain. Once a couple was married, all power and property was transferred to the husband. He could even beat his wife “with the approval of the community” (King, 43) and without legal consequences.

Similarly to the Middle Ages, wives were still legal property and often treated like chattel throughout the Renaissance period. The only way a wife could be free from the oppressive family circle was to be widowed. According to King, “no wife could attain the social freedom available to some widows” (King, 56). Some widows could even maintain and govern their own property. There is one woman who gained the right to govern her own despite being married to the King of France and Henry II – Eleanor of Aquitaine. Although a medieval queen, Eleanor was endowed with significant power despite her sex.

After the death of her father, Eleanor was willed the duchy of Aquitaine and she ruled as Duchess for the entirety of her life. In addition to governing Aquitaine, she also ruled England for some time after the death of Henry II. King does not mention Eleanor of Aquitaine because she was far before the Renaissance period, but her example bares heavy significance on the powers of the female nobility. Although the Renaissance was an attempted return to the philosophies and artistic trends of the ancient civilization, it was also a period of great change for many.

However, for the most part women were left behind in the Renaissance. Slowly female artisans were growing in number, but they were not fully accepted by the artistic masters of the Renaissance. Women were still stereotyped as mothers and wives despite growing attempts by females to break into the academic world. However, by looking at specific examples of certain women such as Christine de Pisan and Eleanor of Aquitaine, we can see there is a growing desire to gain knowledge and power in a world dominated by men.