Women are often the hidden half of history, but this does not mean that they did nothing. With twentieth century eyes it is tempting to look at women of this age as either hopelessly oppressed drudges or anachronistic feminists struggling against the patriarchy. Neither image is correct. Men certainly dominated the public space -- the outward business of war and politics -- and it is largely their names and deeds that are recorded for us. Women usually wielded their influence behind the scenes: around the family hearth, over the backyard fence, at the town well. They labored in public, too, often as the agents and partners of their husbands, or in their steads when they were widowed. Women have always been responsible for the business of everyday life: having and raising families, feeding, clothing, sheltering, and healing the human race. It is work that in a wage-based economy tends to be dismissed as being of little value, but the average farmer or artisan of the past knew how necessary it was.
The sixteenth century did produce a large number of notable women who were heads of state and made a notable impact in the public sphere. These include Queen Elizabeth of England, the Queen Mother Catherine de' Medicis of France, Queen Jeanne d'Albret of Navarre, Mary Queen of Scots. All had to deal with being both a sovereign and a woman, and each chose to solve it in her own way.
Elizabeth remained a Virgin Queen (politically, anyway), using her marriage prospects as a diplomatic tool, and retaining England's (and her own) independence in the meantime. She was certainly one of the key shapers of the national character of England.
Catherine de' Medicis was a quiet queen during her husband's lifetime, fading into the background as Henry II devoted himself to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. When Catherine inherited the kingdom as regent for her sons, she maintained a strict public image of the proper, severe, widow protecting her children. She was widely hated for her deviousness in spite of this, but she managed to balance the crown of France between three powerful factions for 30 years.
Jeanne d'Albret was a rock of moral fortitude. As Queen of Navarre in her own right, she established the Reformed religion in her lands and offered her protection and patronage to Protestant thinkers, preachers, and theologians. She was probably never particularly happy with her husband, Antoine de Bourbon; a wavering fellow, she was the one who provided the backbone to the cause when her husband lacked it. Not a particularly warm mother either, she still managed her son Henri de Navarre's career very well until her death. She died shortly before his marriage to Marguerite de Valois, which she had negotiated with Catherine de' Medicis. It was widely rumored at the time that Catherine had poisoned her.
Mary of Scotland was a tragic queen; compelling in her beauty, sincere and persuasive in her person, she was adored by French Catholics. (Ronsard wrote her several poems.) As a child bride to François II of France, she was little more than a tool of power for her family, the Guises. When she took up the reigns of government in Scotland after François' death, she made good use of her personal charisma to govern but ultimately failed to control the fractious Scottish lairds. Her marriages were personal and political disasters. When the lairds rebelled against her last husband, Bothwell (who was the murderer of her previous husband, Darnley), she made the fatal mistake of fleeing to Elizabeth for refuge as a sister sovereign. As a Catholic and the next heir to the throne of England, Mary was a magnet for intrigues whether she wanted to be or not. Elizabeth imprisoned her for 20 years before finally sending her to the block in 1587.
However, the lives of these famous women in history do not necessary reflect the experiences of the average woman. As always, a woman's life experience varied by social class. Among the nobility, a woman's chief duty was to make dynastic marriages, serving as the vehicle for her family's political and social ambitions. Marriage for a woman of this class was as much her job as the command of troops was her brother's, and such women often married young. Many such women functioned as partners in a political enterprise. Many of the leading Huguenots were brought to their convictions by their mothers and wives, and the women of the House of Guise were just as formidable as their more heroic menfolk.
A woman of the urban artisan and merchant classes was usually a de facto full partner in the family business, even though she may not have held an "official" position. Keeping work and family separate was a luxury the lower and middle classes could rarely afford. Magdalena Paumgartner was the wife of a Nuremburg merchant during the time of Le Poulet Gauche. While he travelled throughout Germany and Italy, placing orders, buying goods at great mercantile fairs, and trading in currency, she managed affairs at home. Her duties included receiving the goods (examining them for damage after their long journey), distributing the orders once they arrived, and collecting payments. She also managed their household staff and a small number of tenant farmers. Magdalena frequently advised her husband on what to buy and was not shy about letting him know when the goods she got were not as she specified. Interestingly, Magdalena never bought goods in Nuremburg for shipment to other parts of the World. Whether this was a function of the type of business her husband ran, or a reflection of some social practice, we'll never know.
Note the number of books published in this century by "La veuve so-and-so." Although the man's name was on the business, it was being run by his widow (la veuve). Magdalena ran her husband's business for many years after Balthazar's death. Widows "stepping in" to take over their late husbands' businesses were sometimes a source of resentment to journeymen who could not buy or inherit a business and become a master of their guild themselves. When a woman married, she was choosing a trade as well as a husband.
|Le Poulet Gauche frequently employs day laborers of this kind. The inn keeps a small staff of girls who live there and work every day. When a runner arrives to make arrangements for a large party of travellers, or during a busy time such as a festival or fair, we hire on additional girls to help in the kitchen and common room. Girls are hired to serve, help in the kitchen, and do scullery work.|
Marriage was often delayed among the non-noble classes, as a woman could not marry until she and her prospective husband could afford to establish themselves and set up a houshold. This meant that the man needed some land to farm or mastership in a trade, and the woman needed a dowry. This was usually her share of the family inheritence, as well as her own earnings. Because land mostly descended in the male line, a daughter's share was in movable goods and money and went with her on her marriage. During hard times, the birth rate tended to fall because marriages were delayed even longer, and during good times it rose because people had more and felt more optimistic about being able to start a family.
Marriage was not a sentimental affair, although certainly love among courting couples was normal. Marriage was a means of productivity: of crops, goods, and children for the future. Being personally happy in the sense that we imagine it today wasn't expected, although naturally a companionable partnership with someone who didn't beat you was a good thing. Women did have to endure the fact that legally and socially, men were in charge. They had their ways of taking the sting out of this, but a husband had the right to beat his wife and could get away with murder in the case of adultery. Women exerted a lot of social control in a village or urban neighborhood by means of "gossip." The old wives knew everything, and often the fear of social censure kept some of the more fractious elements in line. This didn't always work; Montaigne mentions a women in Bergerac who threw herself off a bridge because she could not bear her husband's mistreatment anymore. (There is more on the domestic life of women in the topic Children and Families.)
One can't talk about women without talking about sex. Sex was considered the special province of women, and in the medieval mind women were the carnal, lustful ones, while men were the spiritual ones victimized by their temptations. After all, they were the descendents of Eve. In art, the asexual beauty of the celestial angel was best represented by a young boy. The Victorian idea of the delicate, sexually naive "angel in the home" did not exist. The double standard certainly did though -- a women's honor resided in her sexual exclusivity. Married men were constantly afraid of being cuckolded, and seemed to think this was almost certainly to be expected, given women's voracious appetites. A lot of this, to our eyes, is certainly men projecting their own desires onto women, and blaming women for their own actions. The idea that a raped woman had invited it was certainly common (even Montaigne expresses this view). Christine de Pisan, writing in the 15th century, argues quite touchingly that this is not so, but her voice was a rare one.
Women were also an integral part of the armies of the day. Not as combatants (at least not in the role of women), but as the support services necessary for any army. There were no field hospitals -- soldiers depended on these camp followers to take care of them when they were sick or wounded. The fighting men counted on their women to help carry their gear while on the march, to put up a tent and cook a meal at the end of the day, and to provide the usual sorts of comfort that men expect from women. Consequently, many of these women were carting babies along with their 50 pounds of clothes, tents, and cookware. In spite of their usefulness, camp followers were certainly often despised by society, and even by the ones who benefited from their services. Puritanical leaders often wanted to get rid of them, considering them a source of disorder, but until standing armies were organized with steady pay, medical services, and reliable logistics support, this just could not happen.
The convent represented another option for women. For the most part, the best positions in convents were only open to women of high birth. Poorer women could join as lay sisters, where they did much of the domestic work of running a convent, but the choir was largely for upper class women. Some women exercised vast political and social influence from convents. This was more true in the past than in the sixteenth century, as the trends to enclose women and to encourage them to pray and not study books increased. However, a contemplative nun like St. Theresa of Avila had a big impact on the Counter-Reformation, and St. Vincent de Paul organized an order of women to do gritty social work among the poor. Hospitals were still staffed by nuns, and the idea of such an institution being secular only came about after the Reformation, when the government of Protestant areas had to take over the social of the functions of the church. The closing of convents where the Reform took hold was probably a considerable loss for many women. The Protestants thought they were "liberating" the nuns, but a number of them probably didn't feel that subjecting themselves to a husband and having a dozen children or so was an improvement in their lot. In Protestant countries, single women with a vocation ended up being spinster aunties and governesses, with considerably less status.
Although excluded from any liturgical role in the church, religion in the family had often been a women's province. Both sides of the religious turmoil created opportunities for women to exercise a larger role in their homes and communities as religious leaders. The noblewomen who patronized d'Etaples, Beza, and Calvin were essential to the success of Protestantism in France. Many ordinary Protestant women were delighted to have the opportunity to exercise their minds in the study of the scripture. This was taken as a bad sign by some -- if women could so upset the natural order as to debate scripture and theology, could the end of the world be far off?
Women made up a large proportion of the new religion, something that had happened in past religious movements as well. Until they are put in their place by a hierarchy trying to make itself respectable, a young religious movement eager for converts can provide women a lot of freedom to act, to think, to challenge their old roles, to do something glorious and meaningful, to become martyrs and saints. Protestants were a "people of the book," and it is likely that the new religion appealed to women's intellects, letting them slake up learning and live in a world imbued with more significance than pots of burnt porridge and crying babies. The priesthood of all believers included them, and they made the most of it while they could.
Catholic women of the counter-reformation had opportunities, too, chosing either the path of mystical devotion or social service. Although the contemplative and the active life seem like they could not be more opposed, they still offered a woman scope for a larger identity. The internal war of the mystic was no easier and no less glorious than conquest of the world. And the women who took to the streets to save foundlings and orphans were also on a mission for God, acting to make the here and now the kingdom of God.
Prostitution was another option for independence for women. In the earlier years of the 16th century it was not uncommon for a town to support a municipal brothel, as a way of containing possible public disorder. However, the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation both demanded a more exacting public morality, and many of these were closed over the course of the years. This was probably not to the women's benefit. In a public brothel she had protection from abusive customers, food, shelter, and medical care. On the street, she had none of that. An ordinary prostitute's life, out in the public space with no man to protect her, made her vulnerable to violence and disease, not to mention periodic social persecution. However, the life of a upper class courtesan could be quite comfortable, although such success was much rarer. Montaigne mentions that in the Italian cities he visited the greatest beauty was usually to be found "among those who put it on sale." To be so beautiful, these women needed to eat and dress well and live in fine houses -- all things they had acquired through "gifts" from their patrons.
When all else failed, a lower class woman with a taste for adventure could run away and pass as a man. We don't know how often this happened, but there are tantalizing little clues. Montaigne tells the story of a woman who was burnt when it was discovered that she had been passing as a man, marrying a woman and working as a smith for some years. In the Fugger news reports is an interesting report of a lansknecht who gave birth to a child in Italy. When the treasury of Spain paid out the bounty offered by Don Juan of Austria to the first soldier to board the Turkish flagship during the battle of Lepanto, it was paid to a woman named Maria. Not to mention that in Shakespeare's comedies, the first thing a young woman thinks of when she has to take to the road is to disguise herself as a man. :-) Although it seems improbable to us because women so often wear men's traditional clothing in the twentieth century (trousers), the gender signals given by clothing and roles probably made it easier then. If the person you are dealing with is wearing trunk hose and carrying a musket, then he must be a man, even if he is a tad short and squeaky voiced.
One cannot discuss the history of women during this time without discussing the craze for burning witches. This is a trend which seemed to have been seriously fanned by the printing press. The publication of the witch hunter's guide, the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) at the end of the 15th century and its popularity in print probably caused a great deal of harm. Enlightened Renaissance scholars like Jean Bodin wrote seriously on the subject of witches, and few philosophers found any conflict between science and magic. Witch persecution is a subject that deserves a huge amount of historical examination. It is clearly a social force directed against women, who comprised the overwhelming number of victims, but what this means about the pressures the society was feeling isn't clear to me.
For example, witches appear to have been often older women, usually widows, often living alone. Sometimes they had property, and sometimes they were beggars. Propertied old women are an obvious target for greed, while poor women seem to have been victimized because their begging was a nuisance. "She asked me for a pan of milk, and when I would not give it to her, she cursed my cow," seems to be the sort of evidence given against them. Both of these kinds of women were part of general population trends. The population growth of the 16th century increased the number of indigent poor, overwhelming the charitable institutions that would normally care for them and making people afraid and angry towards them. The population increase also added to the number of discontented young men unable to buy a shop or a farm in order to establish themselves and marry, which would make old widows controlling these kind of resources a target. Sometimes sexual violence and jealousy form a part of these attacks.
However, there were villages were not a single adult woman was left alive after the witchhunters had been by -- which would seem to be socially quite counterproductive, as some of the dead were no doubt young mothers whose loss would impact the viability of the next generation. A society composed only of men is a tad sterile, so woman-hating is a bizarre phenomenon involving a great deal of double-think -- another treatise well beyond our scope.
Women have always practiced "traditional medicine." This was part of any housewife's expected regimen, but some women were specialists. Some of their herbs and potions actually worked, but these were viewed as hedge witchery by scholars who knew all about the circulation of the four humors and their relation to the planets. These superstitious charms could be harmless enough, but if one can cure, one can harm as well. Midwives knew all the mysteries of birth (a subject that had only begun to interest educated men) and they were sometimes feared and suspected of being able to cause miscarriage and abortion as well. The unclear line between medicine and magic was quite normal, but could be turned against a woman. Even if they weren't witches, women were always being suspected of poisoning their husbands if they died suddenly -- part of the fear that the women who were so responsible for maintaining all the fundamentals of life had the power to subvert it as well.
Whether or not the witches thought of themselves as such is quite unclear. Most confessed under torture, which can hardly be considered objective. Their confessions all end up sounding a lot the same, because for the most part they were prompted out of the same books. Being curious, Montaigne met and talked with some accused witches. He concluded that they were rather pathetic people in need of help, and unlikely to be in league with the devil. Henri IV, the ultimate pragmatic man, interfered with some witch prosections, declaring that that had been quite enough and the royal magistrates had better things to do.
The witch-hunters were frequently jurists from the cities. Well educated and cosmopolitan, they travelled from the cities to create order in the countryside. The rural people in the villages they visited inhabited a very different world from them -- a world full of supersititon, ancient semi-pagan customs, and a primitive, poorly-understood form of religion. They had a concrete, non-intellectual, non-reflective way of acting, feeling, and thinking that the average university-educated magistrate could not comprehend. For many of these magistrates, the contact with rural culture was a shock. The countryside of remote areas seemed to be teeming with supersitition, deviltry, and fear. The interest shown by the upper classes in the customs and personal habits of the poor and rural is new thing, fueled by the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, and the growth of the state. Some view the witchburnings as part of an attempt to exterminate an old, native, peasant culture and replace with a new one, more suitable to modern state that wants a unified national culture.
Women were generally less literate than men. Those that were literate often probably put their pens to use keeping the family accounts and writing letters to keep up the web of social fabric. A few prominent women wrote memoirs, and someone like Catherine de' Medici had a voluminous correspondence that has been preserved. However, few wrote books or left their thoughts and experiences to posterity. It means that even in the midst of the Renaissance, one has to dig for their history like one was looking for Troy.