Women, Family, and Society in Medieval Europe: Historical Essays, 1978-1991

By David Herlihy; A. Molho | Go to book overview

2
DID WOMEN HAVE A RENAISSANCE? A Reconsideration

I nterest in the history of women now forces historians to reexamine the large epochs into which they have traditionally divided the past. Conventional divisions, such as medieval or modern, which have long seemed valid and valuable in the light of masculine doings, seem quite different when measured by the experiences of women.

Of all conventional periods, the one that has proved most vulnerable to feminist reassessment has been the Renaissance. In the old and familiar view, the Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, beginning in Italy and then spreading to all Europe, transformed European culture through the revived appreciation of classical learning. Supposedly, too, it was an age of individualism. It liberated men, or some men, from the social and intellectual trammels of medieval society. It liberated men, but what did it do for women? In a seminal article published in 1977 and entitled "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" Joan Kelly-Gadol gave a forthright answer: this supposedly progressive period did nothing for women.1 And most feminist historians have agreed with her. By many social

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1
J. Kelly-Gadol, "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" in Becoming Visible: Women in European History, ed. R. Bridenthal and C. Koonz ( Boston, 1977). The theme is expressed in several of the studies presented in Women in Medieval Society, ed. S. M. Stuard ( Philadelphia, 1976). Kelly-Gadol and others were in part reacting against a famous section (Book five, Chapter six) in Jacob Burckhardt's classic work, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy ( New York, 1929). In one of the weakest parts of this great book, Burckhardt quite unrealistically lauds the freedom and equality of the lady in Renaissance Italy.

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