Handout # 12: Women of the Renaissance

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Handout # 12: Women of the Renaissance

A. Women during the Middle Ages:

(Most women in feudal society were powerless, just as most men were. But women had the added burden of the thought that women were less important than men.)

  • Under feudalism rich women could inherit (get money/land) from her husband when he died. But property would usually go to the oldest son

  • When her husband was away fighting, the lady of a medieval castle could act as a military leader

  • During the middle ages it was sometimes acceptable for a woman to become a professional workers, example. Frankfurt Germany had been famous for having women eye doctors during the middle ages.

  • Women were allowed to work in craft guilds such as, painters, carpenters, masons, shoemakers, candle-makers

  • It was seen as acceptable for among the rich for both men and women to receive an education

  • books that were mainly written by men

  • Marriages were arranged

  • When married women became property of their husbands

B. Women during the Renaissance:

(Traditional beliefs that women were less important than men remained.)

  • Women could own land, but needed their husbands permission to sell the land

  • Most noblewomen did not own property because lords usually passed property down to their sons

  • During the Renaissance it was not acceptable for a woman to become professional workers, example: Frankfurt Germany before the Renaissance was known to have women eye doctors and from 1479 on no woman is known to have been an eye doctor.

  • Women were banned from craft guilds such as, painters, carpenters, masons, shoemakers, candle-makers

  • Men started to have discussions about whether or not women should be given an education equal to a boys education. Most men did not want women to get an equal education to boys.

  • The Guttenberg printing press was allowed more books to be made, most books were written by men, while there were very few women writers

  • Renaissance women, as expected, stayed home to care for the children and the home

  • women were expected to instantly obey not only their father, but also their brothers and any other male members of the family. Any unruly girls were beaten into submission and disobedience was seen as a crime against religion.

  • Women that were considered witches were tortured until they confessed to being a witch

  1. “women, can’t live with them, can’t live without them.”

Desiderius Erasmus, 1446-1536 Renaissance

  1. What do you think Erasmus means by this quote means?


  1. Based on this quote how do you think Desiderius Erasmus view women? Explain


Most Renaissance women, rich or poor, feared and dreaded childbirth because as many as 10% died during, or as a consequence, of childbirth.
The mother who survived childbirth often lived to face the death of the baby she had born at such risk. Babies died from diseases like tuberculosis, influenza, diarrhea, as well as chronic malnutrition and starvation. Infants, children and adolescents succumbed to the plague in every century of the Renaissance at a higher rate than adults. The children of the poor were vulnerable to infections diseases especially the plague. Another cause of death was neglect. Infants were often left unattended and died in accidental fires, drowned in wells or were crushed by passing horses.

Women were expected to be married before conceiving children. When illegitimate births occurred, these women were taxed, imprisoned or banished from their community. Desperate women began to abandon or kill their babies. Infanticide was illegal and was punished with death by drowning and burning.
Throughout Renaissance Europe it was the responsibility of the wife or mother to nurture and assist their children from infancy through adolescence into adulthood. Raising the children included ensuring that they were fed and clothed properly as well as educated.
Renaissance daughters entered the world unwelcomed. From birth, daughters presented a double burden to their families: the preservation of their chastity and the provision of a dowry.
Without a dowry, a girl could not marry in Renaissance Europe. The provisions of a dowry strained the resources of families rich or poor.
Poor women, like poor men, received no formal education, although many men and some women were trained in certain crafts. Middle and upper-class women were taught to be silent and obedient and perform household tasks, such as needlework and spinning. They believed reading was useful, but should be limited to devotional books and good literature. The goals of education for these women was twofold: first, to guide the young women to develop a concept of marriage in which the man was boss, and to train her in those skills most useful in looking after the home and children. Paolo da Certaldo, ca. 1320 said, "If the child be a girl she should be put to sew and not to read, for it is not good that a woman should know how to read, unless you wish her to become a nun."

A wife was expected to be a companion to her husband, but she was always his subordinate and the object of restrictive regulations imposed by him and other male authorities. Obedience was demanded by Renaissance husbands. Renaissance women were restricted in what they wore, in what they said, and where they went. Most legal codes acknowledged the husband’s right to beat his wife without being punished and often with the approval of the community. A divorce was practically impossible to get, except under very rare circumstances, and then available only to the very rich.
Many women gained significant economic independence when they became widows. They could inherit the family property or expect to carry on their husband’s trade. They could also be held responsible for their husband’s debts and, if childless, be returned to the authority of their father, brother, or uncle. In some areas of Renaissance Europe, male guardians were appointed to look after the widow’s property. Poorer women, when widowed, were often left destitute.

A large fraction of the poor during the Renaissance were women. Poor women often became servants and laborers in households. They cared for the homes and possessions of others and often left their homes in the country at an early age. They worked only for their keep. Their wages were often low and certainly lower than the male servants. Female servants were most frequently harassed and abused by high status males, often the nobility. For some poor women, an alternative was working in brothels.

In the country, wives and daughters assisted in all the farm tasks including the heaviest fieldwork. Women mowed, weeded, raked hay, pitched dung, sowed, and harvested. They herded livestock, cared for the poultry, gathered the eggs, and milked the cows. They planted, tended and cooked herbs, and vegetables. They planted, washed, beat, spun and processed the flax and hemp that they wove into shirts and tablecloths. They sheared the sheep and spun the wool into cloaks and blankets. When women performed these chores for pay they earned half the money a man would at the same job.

With few exceptions, like Elizabeth I, most noble women who were queens held power in name only until their young sons were grown. Most noble women did not rule but used their wealthy and power to make contributions to the Renaissance. Anne of Britanny, Queen of Charles VII, filled her court with educated women. In Spain, Isabella enjoyed intellectual life, and while in England, her daughter Catherine of Aragon, was surrounded by the leading humanists of the era.
Most Renaissance women became mothers and motherhood occupied most of their lives. From their mid-twenties in peasant, and adolescence in wealthy families, women gave birth, nursed and gave birth again every twenty-four to thirty months. Most wealthy women married earlier and therefore conceived earlier.

During the Renaissance many girls were forced into convents. They were sent to convents usually so parents would not have to pay a marriage fee to the husbands family.In the convent, they were forced to obey the laws of poverty, obedience, and chastity.
However, for the women who chose to become nuns, the convent offered more opportunities. It was one of the few places women could become educated. They could care for the poor, the sick or the insane. They could teach, write, or read Latin texts. They could compose religious plays or poetry. They write letters to powerful members of the church or government.
Most of the women who became nuns were daughters of the nobility and the wealthy. Poorer women lived in the convents as servants or workers and were only lucky to be taken in. While the rich daughters that lived in the convents were sometimes provided with the best clothing, dresses, and jewelry that money could buy. Many times they competed among eachother to see who was the richest.

Women were mainly meant to have children and raise them. The work that women had to do was mainly housework, cooking, cleaning, washing clothing. As cities grew during the end of the Middle Ages so did the amount of jobs, many former peasants could now get jobs in guilds. At first women could be wool merchants, butchers, bookmakers, blacksmiths, or even run the family business if her husband died. But as time went by women found themselves locked out of positions that they used to be allowed to have. During the Renaissance upper class women had even less freedom than the lower classes. Although many young ladies had the ability to develop artistic or intellectual skills most of their parents did not allow them to receive an education. While this is true there were a few families that provided their daughters with an education equal to that of men. A few of these Renaissance women are, Aphra Behn, Mary Astell, Lucrezia Marinella, Sofinisba Anguissola, and Artemesa Gentileschi.

Women who could not marry or lacked the dowry required to become nuns had to find work. Before the 15th century women could join craft guilds, but after that point craft guilds began to exclude women. Women could be wool merchants, cutlers, leatherworkers, butchers, ironmongers, glovers, bookbinders, or goldsmiths. Sometimes, the wife of craftsman was good enough to supervise the shop or take it over when her husband was dead. Sometimes guild regulations, particularly in northern Europe, treated a wife as business partner with the right to inherit and continue the business. Wives of highly skilled professions such as painters, sculptors, and goldsmiths rarely took over the business because the jobs required long apprenticeship and a high degree of technical accomplishment.

Paolo da Certaldo, ca. 1320 said, "If the child be a girl she should be put to sew and not to read, for it is not good that a woman should know how to read, unless you wish her to become a nun." The role of women, mostly upper class, placed crippling limitations one developing artistic or intellectual skills a woman might possess. Women had less freedom of movement in lower classes, they were always handicapped by the physical strains and dangers of constant childbearing and by endless hard labor to provide for family.

However, fathers and husbands who stood to profit from the careers of their daughters and wives were not likely to oppose them. However, this was not a very common situation.

Judith Slaying Holofernes

By: Artemesa Gentileschi

  1. What do you see/ notice?

  2. How do you think the artist feels about men? Women? Why?

Self Portrait By Sofinisba Anguissola Self Portrait By Artemesa Gentileschi Giovanni Arnolfini and his Bride

By Sofinisba Anguissola (Woman) By Artemesa Gentileschi (Woman) By Jan Van Eyck (Man)

1. Which pictures were drawn by women?


2. What is different about the way the artists drew the women in the pictures? Explain with examples.


3. Which piece of art do you think gives the most realistic portrayal of women from the Renaissance? Explain?


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