Political and Historical Encyclopedia of Women

Political and Historical Encyclopedia of Women

Political and Historical Encyclopedia of Women

Political and Historical Encyclopedia of Women


Created under the direction of Christine Faure of the French Centre National de Recherche Scientifique, the "Political and Historical Encyclopedia of Women (translated from the French reference work, "Encyclopedie politique et historique des femmes) offers new insight into the largely ignored subject of women's participation in Western political and historical change. An international team of forty-two authors has assembled thrity-nine captivating articles that French reviewers have described as "remarkable, " "impressive" and "monumental."


The 16th century is generally seen as an era of upheaval and renewal, notably in the intellectual realm. Philosophical, theological, and scholastic traditions were rejected as the result of intensive reading and consideration of texts and ideas from antiquity. This movement produced a new image of humanity and the world. In the social realm, too, the 16th century represented a clear break with the past: the Reformation shattered the notion of the unity of the Christian West that had previously dominated. The premodern state established new political structures and new ways of exercising power.

Did this general upheaval include a transformation of the relationship between the sexes? In 1976, the American Renaissance scholar Joan Kelly posed the question in provocative terms in her frequently quoted essay, “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” (see Kelly). She responded in the negative, although she did not dispute that during the period in question, at least with regard to love and marriage, new concepts and values were generated that diverged from medieval traditions, and that the image of women changed accordingly. New forms of dependency and constraint were reinforced by new cultural norms of femininity that, according to Kelly, drove women-especially women of the nobility-back into a position of inferiority to men, as compared to the high status of courtly ladies of the Middle Ages.

This conclusion holds true in particular in the political realm. With the emergence of impersonal bureaucratized relationships, the women of the Italian Renaissance had far fewer opportunities to exercise power than they had had in the feudal territorial states of the high and late Middle Ages. Kelly recalls, however, that the situation at court had also changed for the men of the nobility: they, too, were subjected to a loss of power, which led to a certain equality between men and women in the area of cultural life.

To be sure, no unequivocal answer can be offered to the question of the transformation of women's position in the society and culture of the Renaissance, especially if one takes into account other social strata besides the court. Focusing in particular on the lower social classes, the German historian Heide Wunder has described a long-term process of change from the high Middle Ages onward, during the course of which the feudal relationship between production and servitude was dismantled and replaced by commodity production and waged labor (see Wunder). But this process also had ambiguous consequences for the relationship between the sexes and the position of women. Wunder notes that “the emancipation of the couple in marriage and work” would undoubtedly have been inconceivable without the participation of wives. But social and cultural traditions continued to encourage and demand the subordination of women, or at least the dominance of men, so considerable tension persisted between a symbolic order and legal system based on the inequality of the sexes, on the one hand, and more egalitarian economic relations, on the other.

This diagnosis also holds true for the upper classes-the nobility and the urban patriciate-which, in the beginning of the modern era, firmly controlled access to power. Extreme tensions and contradictions in the premodern relationship between the sexes bring us back to the long-lasting European debate on the place, value, and significance of women in society and history, a debate that is known in France as the querelle des femmes (quarrel over the status of women). One of the major focal points in

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