Women in the Renaissance

The Renaissance is the name given to a period that spanned the 14th to the 17th century in western Europe, when learning, science and discovery underwent a "rebirth" following the Dark Ages. It is known as a period of prosperity and significant cultural development. Society at that time was patriarchal, and the role of women still seen to be as the property of their fathers or husbands.

Women of all classes had the same focus in life: to get married well, be good wives to their husbands, give birth to several children (especially male heirs), raise them and take care of the home. Girls often married when as young as 13, often to a man several years older. The bride's family had to give the groom a dowry, in the form of money or property. The bigger the dowry, the better status of the marriage. Women who did not get married usually lived in the households of their relatives, or they joined a convent.

Women rarely received any education, and those that did were not allowed to attend the men-only universities. At home, young girls were encouraged to learn spinning, sewing and embroidery, as well as how to manage a household. Some girls from wealthy or noble families were taught to read and write by private tutors in their homes.

Girls' education began to change in the 16th century, following the founding of protestant churches in northern Europe, when reading was taught at elementary schools for girls, mainly to enable them to read the Bible.

Notable women of the Renaissance include Catherine de Valois (1401 to 1437), a French princess who married King Henry V of England. After Henry's death, Catherine began a secret relationship with Owen Tudor, a Welsh squire. In 1428, Parliament passed a law to prevent widowed Catherine from marrying without the consent of the king and the Privy Council. When Tudor was imprisoned in 1436, Catherine withdrew to Bermondsey Abbey.

Isabella I (1451 to 1504) was queen of Castile and Leon. She married her second cousin, Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Aragon. Isabella was a great patron of the arts and literature, contributing to the flourishing Renaissance spirit of the 15th century. In 1492, she provided financial sponsorship for Christopher Columbus on his voyage of discovery westwards, across the Atlantic, to what was then called the "New World."

Catherine de Medici (1519 to 1589) was an Italian noblewoman who married Henry II of France and then ruled as regent for her three young sons. Her reign was characterized by religious turmoil and civil war in France, between the majority Catholics and the protestant Huguenots. But she is also remembered as a prominent patron of the arts for three decades, spending lavishly on tapestries, sculpture, furniture and paintings.

Queen Elizabeth I (1533 to 1603) ruled at a key time in England's history. Also known as the Virgin Queen or Good Queen Bess, Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth was the fifth and last monarch of the Tudor dynasty. Her reign is known as the Elizabethan era, famous for the flourishing of English drama, led by playwrights such as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, and for the seafaring prowess of English adventurers such as Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh.

Mary I (1516 to 1558) was Elizabeth's older half-sister, the only surviving child of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Her father's divorce from her mother had seen England split from the Catholic Church and form the protestant Church of England. Mary and her mother remained devout Catholics throughout her father's reign and that of her reforming younger half-brother, Edward VI. Upon Edward's death, when aged 15, Mary took the throne. She was 37. She married Prince Philip of Spain, although they had no children, and therefore no heir to maintain England as a Catholic nation.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Extraordinary Women of the Medieval and Renaissance World: A Biographical Dictionary
Carole Levin; Debra Barrett-Graves; Jo Eldridge Carney; W. M. Spellman; Gwynne Kennedy; Stephanie Witham.
Greenwood Press, 2000
The Invention of the Renaissance Woman: The Challenge of Female Independence in the Literature and Thought of Italy and England
Pamela Joseph Benson.
Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992
Women in Early Modern England, 1550-1720
Sara Mendelson; Patricia Crawford.
Clarendon Press, 1998
English Aristocratic Women, 1450-1550: Marriage and Family, Property and Careers
Barbara J. Harris.
Oxford University Press, 2002
Invitation to Renaissance Italy
Rachel Annand Taylor; Gilbert Murrav.
Harper & Brothers, 1930
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "Women of the Renaissance"
Renaissance and Reformation
James A. Patrick.
Marshall Cavendish, vol.5, 2007
Librarian’s tip: "Women" begins on p. 1416
Renaissance Woman: A Sourcebook: Constructions of Femininity in England
Kate Aughterson.
Routledge, 1995
Wives and Daughters: The Women of Sixteenth Century England
Kathy Lynn Emerson.
Whitston, 1984
Marriage Wars in Late Renaissance Venice
Joanne M. Ferraro.
Oxford University Press, 2001
The English Renaissance: An Anthology of Sources and Documents
Kate Aughterson.
Routledge, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "Gender and Sexuality"
The JPS Guide to Jewish Women: 600 B.C.E.To 1900 C.E.
Emily Taitz; Sondra Henry; Cheryl Tallan.
Jewish Publication Society, 2003
Librarian’s tip: "The Renaissance" begins on p. 105
Noble Daughters: Unheralded Women in Western Christianity, 13th to 18th Centuries
Marie A. Conn.
Greenwood Press, 2000
Beyond Isabella: Secular Women Patrons of Art in Renaissance Italy
Sheryl E. Reiss; David G. Wilkins.
Truman State University Press, 2001
Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity through the Renaissance
Cheryl Glenn.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Inscribed in the Margins: Renaissance Women and Rhetorical Culture"
Women under Venetian Colonial Rule in the Early Renaissance: Observations on Their Economic Activities
McKee, Sally.
Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 51, No. 1, Spring 1998
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