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According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, renaissance is a word describing rebirth or revival. Knowing this, did the women of the Renaissance period actually have a renaissance? In 1977, Renaissance historian Joan Kelly pondered about the answer to this question. Through his research he concluded the answer was no, and only the men of the period truly lived through a rebirth. Men stole and ruled the lives of women, making it impossible to break the cycle of control upon women. Through facts and theories found by historians, people of modern day can be given a vision of the world a woman suffered in during the Renaissance. Women of the Renaissance solemnly took society’s abuse and remained in the background during their time.
Lives of women were constantly controlled by the male figures they were associated with. Never did any woman put up a fight to gain any sort of independence to better the lives for themselves and all women. Men generally thought women were the “weaker sex”, when in fact it is clear that Elizabethan women did have to fight through hard struggles, just not in a way men could see. A woman was controlled from birth until death as well. First, a young girl would be taken care of by her father. Once she became older, she would be whisked away by a much older man who would become her husband, and instead he would take care of her. Nannina de’ Medicia said, “Don’t be born a woman if you want your own way.”, and unfortunately this was the reality of the Renaissance period
A woman was told at a young age of what would be expected from her throughout her life. Being of noble or lower class did not matter in this situation. Almost all women would eventually have the burden to do these three things: marry, have a family, and keep her husband content. Finding a husband was a woman’s main goal in her life during the Renaissance. If a life without a husband did not want to be pursued, a woman would be sent to a convent or enter into a life of domestic service. However, the married life was much more acceptable and often single women were thought to be witches.
Between the ages of twelve and eighteen a girl would become engaged and married. A dowry would be sent from the bride’s family to the groom’s. The dowry would consist of money, goods, and/or property. After the groom’s family received a dowry, a wedding date would be set up.
The wedding for a lower class family was less formal and private than noble weddings. Feasting was the main attraction to attend a wedding , therefore almost the whole village in which the couple lived would attend. Noble class couples would have a much more elaborate wedding than that of a lower class couple. Higher class weddings were much more private and only those of the same class would be allowed to attend. Food was also very important, and often the food at higher class weddings were expensive and from foreign lands. Beggars and those part of the lowest lower class would wait outside of these weddings to take the food not eaten. After a wedding of either social class, a contract would be drawn up dictating what property the couple owned and how much money they had. Once the celebration was over and contracts were drawn up, the hardships of a wife set in.
Once a woman married, she was instantly thrown into the world of becoming a mother and housewife. It was absolutely unquestionable for a married couple to not have any children. Men believed women were put on the Earth to only give birth and repopulate society. Martin Luther, who believed in this philosophy, said, “Even if they bear themselves weary, or bear themselves out…this is the purpose for which they exist.”. Lower class women gave birth ever twenty-four to thirty months only during their reproductive years. Noble class women often tried to have children past their reproductive years in order to have the most children they could possibly bear. Florentine Antonia Masi did so, and gave birth to thirty-six children. This popular trend was due to the high infant and mother mortality rates during pregnancies. Women could have several pregnancies and unfortunately many would end in miscarriage or death of their child. It is also estimated that about 10% of all mothers during the Renaissance died during childbirth. Due to the possible chance of dying, mothers would create arrangements for the caring of her other children before going into labor.
Although the complications of childbirth were gruesome and devastating, women believed becoming pregnant was a honor and privilege. Lady Margaret Denton Verney though baring children was “her only indispensable contribution” to her family, leading many women to have several children. During this time, it was true that boy babies were more desired than girls. This was because estates and titles could be directly passed down to a son but not a daughter. If a daughter was born instead, she would still be welcomed and celebrated into the family, but the parents would have to strive to have a son soon after.
Not only after the wedding was mother hood a burden, but also keeping her husband and family happy. Divorce was not accepted in this time. Many couples who wanted to be separated went through an annulment. However, most marriages did last because women were meant to keep quiet and invisible to her husband; keeping opinions left unsaid. Women only spoke when her husband or another man spoke to her. A man to agree with this rule for woman was a Florentine merchant who said, ” Woman is a light thing and wain…If you have women in your house, keep them shut up as much as possible and return home very often and keep them in fear and trembling.”. Although this may seem abusive, men were not allowed to abuse their wives. Sadly, many men still did so.
The wife was meant to be a companion to her husband to social events only when she was asked and be a skillful host to his friends and family. A wife was primarily supposed to take care of the children, clean and prepare meals. Most of a woman’s life was spent inside the home doing domestic chores, while the men would venture outside the house to work or visit with other families. Women and girls were secluded from the outside world and only left the house when asked.
Education was an opportunity given to the wealthy. Only young girls of the noble class were offered an opportunity to receive an education. However, they could not go to a public school with boys and instead had a private tutor that would visit the home.Private tutors would teach the girls languages such as Latin, Greek, French, and Italian. Other classes helped perfect the ladies in music and dance, have better manners and etiquette, and educate on the basics of managing a household. After this education, girls could not go on to a university, and received no further education. Lower class girls did not attend any type of schooling during their lives. Instead, they stayed home and would learn by observing their mothers. By following their mother’s example, the girls could then learn the same basics the noble class learned. Overall, education of any type was on about living life as an adult, wife, and mother.
‘Pain is beauty, beauty is pain’ perfectly describes how Elizabethan women created their appearances. Women of the Renaissance period tampered with their natural beauty to turn themselves into the ideal woman. Women’s bodies during this time aged more rapidly than women of today. This early aging was due to the many births during the early years of their lives. Their teeth also became rotted and yellow because of the lack of vitamins, such as Vitamin C. Since these women believed the lacking features they had were unattractive, they would go to all extremes just to gain more attention. Many of the ladies would dye their hair with harsh chemicals, turning it to a yellow/blonde color which was a popular trend. Women also found a pale complexion to be a more appealing skin tone. Women would lose blood voluntarily to become lighter skinned. The makeup women used was intoxicated with poisonous lead, leading many women to die or become ill from the side affects. Layers of clothing covered a woman’s body to turn it into the perfect shape. A corset would be worn to show off the waist and chest. These corsets created pain for women and often lead to difficulty of breathing.
Women’s clothing was not only dictated by the opinion of men and society, but also the Sumptuary Laws. Sumptuary means: designed to regulate extravagant expenditures or habits especially on moral or religious grounds (Merriam-Webster Online). In short term, the Sumptuary Laws did exactly this: dictated what was morally acceptable to wear in public. These laws pertained to both men and women of all social classes, including royalty. Through the Sumptuary Laws, clothing would show status and dominance over the other classes. Although this law was for all people, women had a much harder time finding clothing to fit the law for their class. Fabric and embroidery were also ruled by the law.
Elizabethan women struggled throughout their entire lives to please and follow society and the rules pertained to them. Men held higher authority over all of society during the Renaissance. Marriage occurred for women at a very young age, leaving them with the burden of motherhood and managing a family the rest of their adult lives. All of society judged on the appearances of women, leaving many to harm themselves in trying to become the definition of what was beautiful. Women of the Renaissance period stayed on the sidelines and followed rules of society, making this time in history based on men and the world they controlled.
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