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Renaissance and Women

Renaissance or the rebirth and rediscovery of man by man was a psychological revolution that changed the European society forever. It was an intellectual movement which led to the revival of learning, of art and literature. This period had an impact that changed literature forever, inspired by Greek, Latin, and Roman influences especially after the fall of Constantinople. The subject of the literary works was a changed human perception and an inward look into one’s soul. Shakespeare, Marlow, and Machiavelli among others were the writers who secularised their works, their characters portraying the human desire for knowledge, lust for wealth and power. Italy was the cradle of the Renaissance, and though the Italian Renaissance ended in 1564, it was the beginning of the English one, and the other European countries ending in the mid seventeenth century.

Although everyone has been taught to hail the Renaissance as a period which changed and led to the development of new forms of art, literature, painting, sculpture, what is forgotten is that this was primarily Euro-centric, and led by men. Women have been purged from this history. European nations who were revelling in their ideas of humanism and development were at the same time forcefully converting South American people by the blade of their swords; not even considering them to be humans, more closer to apes. The fall of feudalism and the rise of the middle class meant the fall of the economic, legal and social privileges that women enjoyed on medieval French feudal estates. When the men were open to experiencing new thoughts and feelings, chastity was being made the norm for women, where they should be submissive and dependent opposite to the dominating men. The bourgeois writings in every field; on education, on domestic life, on society were full of examples of conduct that curbed women’s independence. The literary examples are full of instances when the privacy of the household has been the area attributed to women, which was seen as inherently being inferior to the public spaces occupied by men.

The courtly women of the feudal times shared a bond equivalent to the vassalage between a master and his knight, with their men. The woman was the one whom he swore allegiance and fidelity to, and the woman was not submitting to him, rather it was an exchange of loyalties and services. Like a master, the woman could speak on his behalf and in his favour if the need arose. This was the courtly love written about in the Art of Courtly Love by Andreas Capellanus, and in Marie de Ventadour’s writing a lady was supposed to honour her lover as a friend and not a master. Joan Kelly, a historian, finds Renaissance, which has been perceived as an age of great men, of the flourishing arts, which was seen by Jacob Burckhardt as a time when women and men stood on equal footing, is a wrong misconception, rather it presents a very bleak picture if one is to look at it from a gendered perspective.

Feminist historians after the 1980s have distempered this dystopia by exploring the role of women in Renaissance particularly in Italy which has been the called the birthplace of Renaissance. As defined in the handbook for nobility by Baldassare Castiglione women were supposed to be charming entertainers, charm was expected from men too, but for women it was to be their sole ambition. They were supposed to refrain from activities like horse riding and handling weapons, martial skills that would benefit a ruler. According to Castiglione, noble women were not to participate in daily evening court discussions, he only allowed four women in, two to dance and the other two to moderate the discussion by asking questions and directing it with games. This led to a decline in her overall skills, a separation from secular education, and decreasing influence in courtly society.

There was a clear division and seclusion of the private from the public. Love was made to be practised only by the women, where before the courtier and the husband both shared the vassalage bond of love with master and woman, during Renaissance this love transformed into a give-and-take relation of the man with the prince, and a passive love with the woman. And the Renaissance noble women too were removed from public concerns. Although they were not completely confined to the sphere of family and domesticity like the other bourgeois women, their public power was constrained due to the limitations put on their personal and social lives as she was made completely dependent on her family and husband. Even the women who were then still in the position to be patrons, the literature had nothing to do with them as women, or even fund women’s education. They seemed to have lost all interest in their position as women, as the Renaissance ideals of love and mannerisms, which were exclusively male products, explained the new subordinate position of women to husbands and male dominated kin groups. Justifying the removal of women from unladylike positions of independence and power. Working to make the once fierce, independent, noble and powerful woman into a pleasing, dependent object who was chaste, “proper”, and doubly dependent on the husband and the prince. And so has this practice continued since.

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