Changes in Myths of Gender over Time: Renaissance

Cynthia Klestinec. Women, Science, and Myth: Gender Beliefs from Antiquity to the Present. Editor: Sue V Rosser, ABC-CLIO, 2008.

Until recently, it was assumed that women, largely undereducated, did not play a significant role in the cultural developments of the Renaissance. In many ways, however, women were important to the literary, political, and scientific developments of this period. Some gained access to print—the most important technology of the day—reading books as well as writing them. They became astoundingly well educated, establishing themselves among the elite and shaping the intellectual, humanist traditions of scholarship. Others sought to develop their own communities, traditions of communication, and beliefs. In direct and indirect ways, women helped to shape the cultural programs of the Renaissance, including those associated with the Scientific Revolution.

From 1450 to 1650, Europe witnessed profound changes in technological capacity, political landscape, social customs, and literary traditions. This period saw the rise of print, the flourishing of humanist and civic culture, and the expansion of trade in urban centers across the continent and with “the rest of the world” (a phrase that could only appear, as Mary Louise Pratt has shown, when Europe had an idea of itself as something different from and often opposed to non-European others, which was another development of the Renaissance). These changes were both guides and sources of inspiration for the Scientific Revolution; and like the Scientific Revolution itself, the history of these sweeping changes depends on the ideas, activities, and communities of men and women alike.

Print Culture and Humanism

In Mainz, Germany, around 1450, printing with movable type was perfected, and while the invention has been attached variously to the names of Johann Gutenberg and Johann Fust as well as Peter Schöffer, the year 1450 provides a useful marker for the beginning of the Renaissance. Matched perhaps only by the Internet today, the printing press was to have the most profound impact of any innovation on European culture. Books became more affordable and more pervasive, and their accessibility changed educational institutions, intellectual practices, and reading habits. At universities, students could afford small, roughly made editions, sometimes with extra pages at the end for note taking; and instead of relying wholly on lectures and the oral traditions of education, students began to rely on the scripted traditions of books: encyclopedias, dictionaries, monographs, and illustrated volumes. Students as well as noblemen and merchants also began to amass books—the first library at the university in Padua, Italy, was begun by German students—and to read silently. This shift to silent reading hints at the radical impact of movable type and the technology of print on the development of the individual.

The rapid spread of printed material encouraged alternative political and religious opinion. After 1517, when Martin Luther openly criticized the corruption of the Catholic Church, the fervor for alternative religious views and communities began to take shape with the help of vernacular Bibles, pamphlets, and other literature. Indeed, in England, before Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church, the government attempted to censor and prevent these publications, actions that attest to the power of this new technological resource.

The spread of print also helped to shape a new set of intellectual practices among elite, learned Europeans (those who knew Latin) and the unlearned or “un-Latined” people, including barbers, surgeons, midwives, and artisans. As scholars were freed from the painstakingly slow work of producing manuscripts (literally, texts “written by hand”), they recognized the value of print and began to work on editions of classical texts of both Greek and Roman origin. Renaissance means “rebirth,” and these scholars set out to recover and revive the ideas and eventually the practices of the classical age, for which they were called humanists and their program, humanism (a later term derived from studia humanitatis). Humanism sought to appropriate Greek and Latin learning, focusing on the disciplines of grammar, rhetoric, and poetics to transform students into active, politically engaged, and ethically responsible citizens. Humanism, these pedagogues argued, prepared students for the lively world of political debate by training them in legal constructs of argument and in eloquence. While the 15th century (1400s) witnessed a gradual spread of humanistic inquiries and educational initiatives, the 16th century (1500s) reveals the fruits of those efforts.

In 1513, Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), author of The Prince, wrote a letter to Francesco Vettori in which he associated the book as much with the development of liberal thought as with the image of a noble humanist: “When evening comes, I return home, and I enter into my study; and at the door I take off my everyday dress, full of mud and dirt, and I put on royal and courtly clothes; and decently dressed I enter into the ancient courts of ancient men … [and] for four hours at a time I feel no boredom. I forget all trouble, I do not fear poverty, death does not frighten me. I put myself completely at their disposal” (93-95). Withdrawing from the world and taking refuge in the private, silent space of his library, Machiavelli read the works of the ancients, reconstituted their dilemmas, and sought to learn equally from their successes and their failures. The book, the library, the resonance between ancient and contemporary courts—these features became part of the material culture of the Renaissance. They signified not only material wealth but also the noble spirit that humanists first celebrated. They would be duplicated and adapted by men and by women, for soon women humanists emerged in various European cities and courts.

Women Writers

In a now famous essay, “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” Joan Kelly-Gadol suggested that medieval women enjoyed a range of liberties, including sexual ones, that were not extended to women in the Renaissance. Some medieval women had access to property ownership if spouses and fathers died; other medieval women, such as Marie de France, were sophisticated poets, gifted at articulating their desires in a language that blended the eroticism of Scripture with that of court culture. Medieval women writers were not merely the objects of male desire or of the chivalric narratives of conquest; rather, women helped to shape the literary traditions of their day, using the clichés or conventions of romance to transform the heroine from a passive object into an agent in hot pursuit of her beloved. Writing before many of the texts of Renaissance women had been discovered, Kelly-Gadol focused on the texts of medieval women writers, illuminating early developments in women’s history. Following her lead, subsequent scholars have recovered the writings of Renaissance women, demonstrating the many ways that these women responded to the social and political forces that served to constrain them.

One Renaissance text that encouraged women to write or that seems to have demanded a response from its female audience was The Book of the Courtier (1528) by Baldesar Castiglione (1478-1529). The Courtier provided a nuanced representation of court culture, specifically the court of Urbino. Written as a dialogue, the courtiers set out to describe the ideal courtier. Written as a dialogue between courtiers and courtesans, the text begins with the question of what constitutes the ideal courtier. The ideal courtier was supposed to embody the aspect of sprezzatura, a certain graceful nonchalance, and to possess extensive knowledge of the classics. Castiglione modeled his courtier on the Renaissance humanist and made humanist learning the means of attaining power and prestige at court. When the interlocutors discuss the relationship between the ideal courtier and the courtesan, they struggle with hierarchy and complementarity. Was the courtesan ideally subordinate to the courtier or a complement? And if a complement, then how learned should she be? As they explore the question of women’s education, it becomes clear that the ideal courtesan was based on more than humanist learning. If she is learned, the courtiers wonder, should her learning have consequences—for policy making or advising the prince—or should it be merely ornamental, a testament to the wealth and nobility of the court itself? While much debate ensues and several comments about equality emerge, one interlocutor seals the fate of women. If the courtesan is to have knowledge of all things, will she then go on to govern cities? His question allowed the anxiety around the publicly accessible female, the appropriately humanist courtesan, to crystallize. Although the conversation turns in another direction, the issue would emerge repeatedly in the texts of Renaissance women writers.

The question of whether a woman could or should govern joined questions about whether women were capable of intellectual inquiry; these questions were subsumed by the broader debate on women’s natural inferiority. Known in its literary manifestation as the querelle des femmes, the “Woman Question,” this debate was wide ranging, attracting European and English authors and eliciting various responses. Veronica Franco (ca. 1546-1591), a Venetian courtesan, published a collection of letters and poems that established her presence among Venetian noblemen, especially those responsible for the governance of that city-state. Her writing displayed her humanist education; it also turned the traditions of love poetry to her favor. Condemning a critic of hers, she transformed the language of chivalry into her own, poetic defense.

As if jolted awake from sweet sleep all at once,
I drew courage from the risk I’d avoided,
though a woman, born to milder tasks;
and, blade in hand, I learned warrior’s skills,
so that, by handling weapons, I learned
that women by nature are no less agile than men
Poems and Selected Letters, Capitoli 16)

Franco indicated that her “blade” was, in fact, her pen, which she used to negotiate the humanist world of Venetian nobility, to establish and defend her authority as an independent, learned woman.

A similarly critical edge is visible in the work of Moderata Fonte (Modesta Pozzo, 1555-1592). A Venetian noblewoman rather than a courtesan, Fonte operated under different constraints. Like most Venetian noblewomen, she was supposed to remain indoors, sheltered and away from public scrutiny. For Fonte, this became the context of her dialogue, The Worth of Women (1600). Like Castiglione’s work, Fonte’s dialogue included several interlocutors, debates on a range of issues, and witty exchange. Unlike Castiglione, however, Fonte made all of her interlocutors female, stressing the different perspectives that unmarried virgins, wives, and widows brought to the topic of the worth of women. Fonte, that is, transformed the traditional or conventional nature of the dialogue to her advantage, using it to explore the issues that faced Renaissance women and to expose the nature of inequality.

Like other learned women, Fonte obtained her education under atypical circumstances. When her brother returned home from school, she would beg him to explain to her the many things he’d learned that day. Her brother’s sympathy in these early years became open support in later years when he helped to connect her to noblemen interested in her publishing career. The themes of education for women and the intellectual inferiority of women occupy much of Fonte’s dialogue. Early in Fonte’s dialogue, one interlocutor explains: “This pre-eminence [of men] is something they have unjustly arrogated to themselves. And when it’s said that women must be subject to men, the phrase should be understood in the same sense as when we say that we are subject to natural disasters, diseases and all the other accidents of this life: it’s not a case of being subject in the sense of obeying, but rather of suffering an imposition; not a case of serving them fearfully, but rather of tolerating them in a spirit of Christian charity, since they have been given to us by God as a spiritual trial. But they [men] take the phrase in the contrary sense and set themselves up as tyrants over us, arrogantly usurping that dominion over women that they claim is their right, but which is more properly ours” (59). So bold and direct, Fonte’s prose startles and reminds us that Renaissance women, even in the rich, cosmopolitan context of Venice, were severely limited in terms of their access to the public sphere, to political agency, and to social mobility. Equally, however, her remarks reveal that Renaissance women were highly articulate about their situation and about the possibility of change. If Moderata Fonte set up her dialogue among women to dramatize the merits of a female community and to highlight by contrast the faults of the existing male community, Lucrezia Marinella (1571-1653) produced a polemical tract that sought to effect change more directly. Marinella was the daughter of a physician, learned in literary traditions and, one must imagine, in medical ones. Her work, The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men (1600) was written as a forceful and immediate response to a misogynist tract by Giuseppe Passi. In her chapter on the nature and essence of the female sex, Marinella rehearsed the arguments in favor of female superiority, but she also added a catalogue of classical and contemporary philosophical and literary sources that served as evidence for her point. Finally, she transformed the typical discussion of beauty—women could serve as ornaments to a society or a court because they were beautiful—into a sustained discussion of the inherent link between beauty and nobility: because they are more beautiful than men, women are also more noble in spirit; that is, a woman’s body is beautiful because it is the vessel for her noble spirit. The debates on the nature of women were also reflected in the Renaissance medical and scientific traditions, for as female practitioners such as midwives began to write treatises on medical care, they made powerful arguments in favor of the superior inclinations and capabilities of women.

Women and Vernacular Science

Like learned women, who resisted and responded to a range of social and political constraints through writing, women practitioners and professionals similarly responded to these restrictions in writing. Nowhere is this as clear as in the evolving relation between midwives, surgeons, and physicians. While the early Renaissance saw midwives as the appropriate and often expert practitioners of the birthing chamber, the midwife’s authority was slowly eroded. This erosion was in part due to the educational disparities between physicians and midwives, between practitioners trained at the university (a learned culture) and those trained typically by long apprenticeships with other midwives (a vernacular culture). In the 16th century, moreover, many city ordinances instructed midwives to call for a physician or a surgeon if there were any problems with a delivery. Both the exclusion from university education and the new scientific study of childbirth helped to deteriorate the image of the successful, female midwife. In the midst of this development, however, female midwives took up their pens, writing sophisticated and polemical treatises in favor of female birth attendants and female expertise.

The importance of print to these developments should not be overlooked. Women chose to write and to seek publishing opportunities just as female readers became a more important segment of the book market. Vernacular readers, especially women, were interested in books that responded to issues of health. An array of medical manuals was available ranging over such diverse topics as how to read urine, how to treat insomnia and cramps to the salutary effects of mineral baths and separate herbals for boils, fistulas, and bad breath. Female readers, in particular, were familiar with technical writing that dealt with domestic technologies such as cooking and silkworm propagation, and household “physick” as well as midwifery. In England, for example, between 1475 and 1575, the 85 practical guides directed to women generated 290 editions. Indeed, the numerous editions on technical subjects indicate that the expansion of the book trade depended on a thirst for practical—not just literary or historical—works, suggesting that technical manuals constituted a major part of the public reading culture during the period.

Appealing to this market, Louise Bourgeois (1563-1636) wrote Various Observations concerning sterility, miscarriages, fertility, births and diseases of women and newborn children (1626), a midwifery manual that celebrated her skill and experience as well as her learning. Married to a surgeon and living in Paris, Bourgeois had access to a great deal of technical, medical education; she became the midwife for the royal court and eventually to Marie de Medici. Written at the height of her successful career, her manual combines technical education with hands-on expertise, two features that were to become standard themes in subsequent midwifery publications.

In her Midwives Book (1671), Jane Sharp, a London midwife, emphasized her experience and her learning, especially her awareness of contemporary, academic debates about anatomy. Sharp, however, was inclined to privilege her experience, which consisted of more than 30 years of successful practice. She celebrated the art of midwifery alongside her own diligence, dedication, and success. For Sharp, female expertise in the birthing chamber depended on experience (and proper training) as well as the natural inclinations of the female sex. Sharp also highlighted various problems with academic medicine. She presented an image of learned medicine that was fractured, argumentative, and incapable of arriving at a consensus. In direct contrast, Sharp created an image of a female-dominated community of birthing experts, a community that was coherent, integrated, lively, and in agreement on many issues concerning birth and the health of both mother and child. Like Jane Sharp, Justine Siegemund (1636-1705), a German midwife, took up her pen to argue forcefully for the expertise and authority of female midwives. In The Court Midwife (1690), she claimed that she acquired her special skills because she was a woman. Initially a successful strategy, this eventually was used to criticize and dismantle her authority (and the authority of many midwives).

Kept from the more scientific study of childbirth, midwives were less practiced with the tools of child birthing, such as the forceps. Frequently used by surgeons, the forceps allowed practitioners to deliver babies who would not be deliverable using the hands alone. The tool was invented by Peter Chamberlen (1560-1631) in early 17th-century England. Surgeons began to develop a reputation for expertise and technological skill in the birthing chamber and this allowed them to encroach on the midwife’s clientele. In the 18th century, the debates continued. Favoring female attendants, many authors relied on norms about modesty—that it was improper for a man to examine a woman’s body—and on the notion that women, because they were female, were inherently better at caring for other women. Those favoring male attendants, though, emphasized formal education and technological skill. It was the issue of who could guarantee safe delivery of mother and child that eventually carried more weight than moral arguments about modest behavior. Thus, while medical men gained the experience that traditionally only midwives possessed, midwives did not in turn come to be regarded as medical practitioners.

Women, Men, and Learned Science

In the 16th century, vernacular or popular writings proliferated; women began to publish literary works and medical treatises. While these changes were afoot, the learned cultures of the Renaissance were also changing. Responses to humanism began to take shape. Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564), an anatomist working in Bologna and Padua in the 1540s, set out to recover the anatomical studies of the ancient anatomist, Galen (second century AD). In 1543, he published The Fabric of the Human Body, a monumental textbook with exquisite woodcuts of dissected bodies and anatomical parts. Vesalius sought to “raise from the dead” the ancient art of dissection, which Galen had first perfected. But Vesalius went one step further. He lamented the ways that anatomists and medical humanists depended more on books than on cadavers and other specimens; they, he said, “croak away” about things they have read but never seen “with their own eyes” (dedication). As a Renaissance humanist, Vesalius resuscitated Galen’s works, but by the 1540s, that resuscitation was openly critical of many humanist practices. So characteristic of late-humanist thought, that opposition marked a new direction that was to be instrumental to the Scientific Revolution.

The desire for change is also clearly evident in the work of Francis Bacon (1561-1626), often called the architect of the New Science. In his first major work, The Advancement of Learning (1605), Bacon ridiculed the medieval, intellectual traditions of scholasticism and attacked the syllogism as the key example of circular, repetitive reasoning. Like Vesalius, Bacon distinguished himself from humanists who merely parroted the words of the ancients. He depicted scholasticism as stale, repetitive, and traditional and highlighted to a greater extent the failures of the humanist enterprise. In the treatise on blood circulation (1628), William Harvey (1578-1657) followed this path, insisting that observations rather than books should form the basis for claims about anatomical and physiological processes. Vesalius and Bacon also reflect a misogynist approach to the study of nature. As recent research has shown, the female body became the very symbol of nature; as the study of nature developed, the role of the natural philosopher (scientist) was to penetrate the “secrets of nature,” a phrase originating from the tradition of the “secrets of women.” Fantasies of penetration and even rape would later combine with the rhetoric of imperial conquest, signaling the darker sides of scientific inquiry and progress.

The rhetoric of innovation began to oppose the practices of humanism. In the introduction to On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) referred to classical mathematics in order to pave a new road for mathematical study in the realm of astronomy (traditionally seen as theoretical rather than practical inquiry). By the late 16th and early 17th century, however, the tone was more confrontational. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), the famous astronomer, celebrated his new observations of the moon’s uneven, jagged surface so that he could unsettle part of the foundation of Aristotelian natural philosophy—namely, that the universe was perfect in form. If the moon’s surface was uneven and more like the Earth’s surface, it was then clear that the universe was not formally perfect. In this and other ways, Galileo argued forcefully against the older, Aristotelian plan of the universe.

Other disciplines began to explore questions that lay beyond the strict bounds of humanist thought. Rene Descartes (1596-1650) composed the Discourse on Method (1637) and Meditations on First Philosophy (1641) around the idea that he could overcome doubt with the principle “I think, therefore I am” or better, when I am thinking, I exist. Descartes argued that the mind and the body were distinct. In the Discourse, he claimed to abandon the study of letters and pursue his personal desire for new, more solid foundations. Tellingly, he noted that only mathematicians were able to demonstrate “certain and evident” reasoning. Abandoning the humanist enterprise, the study of letters, and hinting at the new role attributed to mathematics, Descartes embodied the sentiments most closely associated with the Scientific Revolution.

While Descartes’ ideas would lay the groundwork for rationalism and be heavily criticized by Thomas Hobbes and others, the reception of his ideas among female readers is intriguing. Women were attracted to ways that Descartes’ split between the mind and the body served to place the mind above the body. This hierarchy of intellect and reason over nature presented women with a system or a set of ideas that freed them from the linked relationship between woman, body, and nature. The proper use of a woman’s mind was revealed through her reason, her serious engagement with the world, rather than her ability to be an ornament to that world. Women, that is, could be more than social butterflies.

Although 17th-century women did not employ Descartes’ ideas in an orthodox way, they did use his ideas to elaborate the theme of the worth of women, particularly the worth of women’s mental faculties. Mary Astell (1668-1731) wished to extend the role of a woman beyond that of wife, mother, and nun; she proposed an institution that would operate like a secular convent where women could live, study, and teach. Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673) recognized these themes in her writing; she also sought to penetrate the male world of science. Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, published several works that ranged from literary to historical to philosophical or natural philosophical (scientific). She drew attention to the poor education that women received at public institutions; she noted that they were subordinated within the home and limited by the demands associated with childbirth; and she explored and lamented the vision of woman as incompetent, unintelligent, and irrational. However, she also indicated that these views were due to the few contributions made by women, implying that this was not because of educational disparity but rather inherent capability. Difficult to assess, her works are openly critical of institutional inequality and of women themselves. Her enthusiasm for science was reflected in her focus on the smallness of atoms and her ability to imagine alternative worlds within this world, an idea that captures her creativity and poetic potential as well as her interest in the developments of science and her ongoing commitment to political debate.

By the mid-17th century, scientific inquiry began to occur not only at universities but also at meetings held by learned societies. These societies appeared across Europe and in England. The Royal Society of London held regular meetings at which members would debate recent findings, share the results of their research, and conduct live (sometimes spectacular) experiments. In this semiprivate context, Robert Boyle (1627-1691) conducted his experiments with the air pump, built largely by Robert Hooke (1635-1703). In addition to building experimental apparatuses, Hooke is well known for his work with the microscope and his published study, Micrographia (1665). Even at this late date, science was open to its surrounding culture, for Hooke described the “new worlds” that he viewed in the microscope and the scientist’s mandate to “conquer” them. In doing so, he echoed overtly the discovery of non-European lands, marking an early instance of the close relationship between science and imperialism.

Isaac Newton (1642-1727), mathematician and natural philosopher, studied the work on optics done by Boyle and Hooke as well as Descartes. He conducted his work at Cambridge University, but it was not until 1715 that he published his research on optics, forced to wait until his critics were dead. In the area of mathematics and cosmology (the structure of the universe), Newton published his major study, the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, in 1687. There, Newton demonstrated the principle of gravitation. In addition, while Newton contributed to many areas of mathematical study, he is best known for his solutions to the contemporary problems in analytical geometry of drawing tangents to curves and quantifying the areas bounded by those curves, which are known today as differentiation and integration. In 1675, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) set out his first principles of differential calculus. Though Newton indicated these as early as 1676, Leibniz seems to have evolved them independently. An active debate ensued, however, with Newton’s friends and Leibniz’s friends seeking to claim priority.

Leibniz received a great deal of support from his friend, Sophia Charlotte of Hanover (1668-1705), first Queen of Prussia. Leibniz was her tutor, but in later years, she became an advocate for his work, persuading her husband to provide financial support to the Berlin academy of sciences where Leibniz worked and thrived. Even earlier, however, in 1697, Sophia Charlotte suggested the building of an astronomical observatory at Lützenburg, which Leibniz used to promote his proposals for a full-scale scientific society. The proposals were eventually accepted; the Society received a charter in 1700, and Leibniz was made president. According to the letters exchanged between them, Leibniz also gave support and encouragement to Sophia Charlotte, for it was no secret that Sophia’s husband kept a mistress at court and that this mistress, unlike Sophia, was less interested in intellectual matters. Judging from her letters, Sophia turned with relief and delight to discussions of philosophy and theology with Leibniz and others.

While the period began with Machiavelli, who escaped daily toil by withdrawing into his library where he could engage in a conversation of sorts with the classical philosophers and historians of ancient Greece and Rome, it may be said to end with Sophia Charlotte, who surrounded herself with learned men so that she—sensitive, learned, and inquisitive—might escape the domestic difficulties of her marriage and engage the burgeoning world of Enlightenment science and letters. While the Renaissance witnessed so many changes in the political, social, and technological terrain of Europe, it did so with the industry, perseverance, and desire of women as different as Veronica Franco and Margaret Cavendish, women who are now being appreciated for the full impact of their work.