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The renaissance began a momentous time in the history of Western Europe. Many new forms and styles of arts, literature, and customs emerged during this period. Economic, social, and cultural changes affected the lives of everyone. Particularly the role of women in society was affected. There were four categories that women were labeled to, wives, mothers, widows and daughters. Within each of these branches, certain duties were always expected of them. Jacob Burckhardt once wrote, ?to understand the higher forms of social intercourse in this period, we must keep before our minds the fact that women stood on a footing of perfect equality with men.?. It is a widely known fact that this in no way was true. Inequalities between men and women have always affected society. Men were constantly gaining up on women and spoke of them with contempt. They believed that woman was more sinful than man. This belief goes back to original sin when Eve had been seduced by the devil. Eve?s actions made men assume that women deserved to suffer. However, the Renaissance helped to narrow the gap between the two sexes. All women whether they are of noble blood, a shopkeeper?s sister, or a farm worker?s daughter, were placed on a higher pedestal then they had expected during this time. Women?s positions in society had effects on the Renaissance period just as great as any mans.
Noble women don?t appear to have a hard life, but when you look between the lines they have it just as rough as any other women of that time. From the beginning, young women were required to learn the basic household skills that they would be expected to execute as wives and mothers. These women did perform textile work, but they did it for luxury, they did not actually need the items they would make. They would use gold thread in their tapestries instead of common cotton. Other domestic skills consisted of embroidering, spinning, weaving, managing economy, supervising servants, and nursing any ailing household members. Beyond this noble women were expected to entertain their husband?s guests and see to the purchase and storage of supplies for the house. From their mothers, young ladies learned about the values of chastity, obedience and silence. Girls were expected to be seen and not heard. Going to church was most often the only time they would get any kind of social interaction outside their families. An early humanist once said he would rather see a girl ?deaf and blind than over stimulated to pleasure.?
Teachings of virginity were strong in anyone?s home for both boys and girls in all classes. Before a young lady was to be married, her father had to assure her fiancee?s father that she was indeed a virgin. If a young woman lost her virginity, by rape or seduction, she was most likely to be abandoned by her family. This also meant she was liable to turn to prostitution as a form of employment.
Marriage was more of a political game than a true love story. Most girls who did think seriously about marriage did not think falling in love was a basis for getting married. A young noble woman?s father, or male kin, determined the fate of their daughter?s hand. The decision was based on political, social, and business agreements between families. When a woman married, she was expected to bring in some of her father?s wealth to the family. Marriage turned into more of a business transaction between the parents of the two fiances. Men often didn?t see his wife-to-be until the day for the signing of the marriage contract. Adolescent girls of twelve or thirteen usually married older men. These men would be in their late twenties and early thirties on most occasions. This resulted in loveless marriages which led to many more problems. Adultery was constantly looked upon as a serious crime committed by a wife. Punishments of death and sever beatings seemed perfectly reasonable at the time. On the other hand, men were allowed to have mistresses and have sexual relations with monogamous partners, and this was considered okay by most people.
Along with marriage came a variety of obligations and expectations. Bearing children was a difficult and complex procedure. It was made to also be a social interaction and gathering process. Men were completely excluded from this operation. Low-grade women had their female neighbors help deliver the child. Noble women had their nursemaids and mid-wives help with the process. There were often several women in the room during this process to overlook and help. It was considered a formality to be invited to watch the birth of a future princess or prince. There were no doctors to help a woman during her time. A midwife was always present because she knew how to direct birth and deal with problems that occurred. Infant mortality rates were extremely high for all the classes. Almost 50-55% of the children born during this time would not live to be four years old. Women had no relief from pregnancy. They often conceived again within weeks of giving birth. Twenty to twenty-five children from one mother was not uncommon. This was seen as desirable to the wealthy because it showed they were able to care for all of them. Some single mothers were unable to take care of one baby. Baby girls were not appreciated in any class family. Periodically if a woman gave birth to a baby girl, the father would dismiss her and keep trying until a boy was produced. Immediately following birth, noble women had wet-nurses to help to care for their babies. These women would provide milk for their babies, care for them, and raise them until they were one to two years old. The children were the mother?s responsibility until they reached the age of about six or seven. From there, girls were kept confined and constantly supervised in the training of household skills. Boys were prepared by their father, a school, a tutor, or in apprenticeship.
The bulk of noble women was expected to just look pretty and take a backseat in courtlife. Others were expected to host parties and entertain guests for their husbands. At the beginning of the Renaissance, court was the only sphere where women could convert social power into political power. This was mainly because court was one of the few places women were expected to be seen. When upper class women went out, they had to be accompanied by another adult. They were to be constantly supervised at all times. Toward the end of the era, ladies were just beginning to spend more time in the company of men. They were now eating at the table with them, traveling with them, and influencing their art. Having the presence of women around seemed to improve the men?s general social behavior. Women took great pride in their looks, just like women of today do. Queens and princesses decked themselves with precious jewels, gold, and pearls. Ladies stuffed themselves into tight corsets to slim their figures. High foreheads were considered so beautiful that women shaved or plucked their hairlines back to achieve the divine look. Blonde hair was preferred to most women and some men. Fashionable gentlemen and ladies dyed their hair to complete their aristocratic appearance. Peasant women would grow their hair long, then cut it and sell it to provide wigs for noble class women. Upper class females would spend countless hours on rooftops bleaching their hair color to a lighter one . . . Cosmetics were used by ladies from all classes. They would paint their eyelids, face, nails, and even teeth with their make-up. Dressy outfits consisted of brooches, headdresses, rings, bracelets, fur coats, and open sleeved dresses. Heavy perfumes were used by all classes to drown out foul smells. Cleanliness was not a high priority for most people and bathing was rare. Perfumes made from flowers, herbs, spices, and vinegar helped to cover up these filthy smells. Commoners were not subject to wear these extravagant clothing items. Egotistical upper class women did not appreciate lower class women trying to imitate them. Laws were passed forbidding the amounts of gold cloth to be used by the richer middle classes. Peasant women were forbidden to wear any silk, except for bonnets and ribbons in their hair. They wore aprons, kerchiefs, wide sleeves and skirts of heavy durable cloth on an everyday occasion. During the summer some women wouldn?t wear shoes to save their wear and tear for the cold winter months.
Merchant class, or middle class, women were similar to those of the noble class. Even though they were without the money the nobility possessed, their life styles are comparable. Marriage was arranged in the basic same sort of fashion. Only some men began courting women during the Renaissance period. Suitors paid court to women whom they chose for either themselves, or who were chosen for them. Young girls were only seen at church. A young man seeing a pretty girl, would take an interest in her and find a way to meet her after the service. A relationship got serious when he serenaded a girl from the window of her room. Although they would never see each other outside of special events and festivals, the young man would always make it a point to find his maiden. He would dress very nicely and always wear a dagger as a proof of his manliness. In order him to marry, he would ask the girl?s parents permission for her hand in marriage. If he was found acceptable, the families would come together for a festive meal. The young man would give his fiancee a gold ring as a token of his love and affection.
Daughters of the wealthier side of the merchant and nobility were given the opportunity to receive a formal education. Throughout the renaissance women?s literacy rates remained lower then mens. A woman?s education generally corresponded more or less to their position in society and to what was expected of them. Women could only truly rise through education and struggle. Men didn?t believe that women were capable to apply what the learned to assist them in their everyday life. An Italian philosopher remarked, ?I allow women to learn but to teach, never.? But through this woman still learned and taught others what she knew. Academies were formed by women where members of both sexes could come and read orations and essays, or participate in debates. The women who did excel in some demonstration of learning or wisdom were repeatedly said to have ?exceeded their sex? or ?achieved the virtue of a man.? These stereotypes first made a regular appearance in the works of male humanists. Chess was considered ?an exercise worthy of fine wits and noble birth,? and yet women from middle and higher classes partook in the games.
Wives of merchants tended shops, helped keep accounts or managed other business records. A wife was considered good if she placed her husband?s wishes and well-being before her own. The wife was to direct the whole household with his comfort in mind. A merchant?s wife obeyed his demands and took care of the household while he provided the income. Shopkeepers? wives looked after customers and helped with the bookkeeping in addition to their household chores. Domestic duties were arduous and very time consuming thus keeping women from considering careers outside the home. These families would typically have one to two servants to wait on them, but rarely more.
Poorer working families lived in small overcrowded rooms in the city. Steep and narrow stairs would lead from one floor to the next. Plumage and structure were repeated problems. Money was tight and little could be done to solve these types of homing malfunctions. Domestic women worked hard tending to the laundry and cooking all day. Women who did chose to work found occupations of hard labor, dressmaking, or attempted artistry. Women were considered inferior to men and therefore were not given high paying jobs.
Noble families would employ up to one hundred servants at a time. Service could be recruited at local hiring fairs, or more commonly was by recommended by neighbors. Both men and women took serving jobs, but the desire and need for men were greater than it was for women. Lowlier households implemented more women because they were worth less and could be easily afforded. Women were given the less public tasks and behind the scene jobs like cooking and cleaning. Women also received only half of the low wage that male servants received. These servants were expected to work all through the day receiving little to no time off. Their employers completely controlled their lives. Because the servants were so dependent on them, the employers would often beat and punish their servers. Young women saw domestic service as a way to save enough money for dowry to attract a husband. This meant contributing many years of their life into service. Young ladies were forbidden to get married. In some cases this was by law, and in others just by custom. If a female servant became pregnant, she would be directly dismissed. The masters of the house usually provided board and lodging, but hardly ever separate quarters. Poorer homes could sometimes only provide a closet beneath the stairs, or a space on the kitchen floor.
Peasants? lives were uncomparable to those of the nobility and merchant classes. If a girl was born to peasant parents?, the family was greatly disappointed. Boys were needed to help out on the farms and take care of themselves. Infant girls were often abandoned if family was exceptionally poor. This was simply because girls could not earn as high wages as boys. In cases like this, the father would ship the daughter to a convent to become a nun. This was the only way to ensure the young girl would not get married and need dowries. Other families would send their girls out to become servants for the rich once they reached the age of seven or eight. Peasants who kept their children trained the males and females in the essential and ageless agricultural skills. Peasant women performed manifold duties, from tending to fowl, sheep and the vegetable garden to brewing beer and assisting with the harvest. On top of all this they still had the children to raise and a husband to take care of. Unless they could afford pewter or copper pots, peasant women cooked their food in clay pots. Meals were insufficient and bland to the tongue in most cases. Furniture was scarce in their homes. Most houses only had straw-stuffed beds and a kitchen table with chairs to fill up the room.
In conclusion, the age of the Renaissance affected everyone in society, especially the roles of women in the household, city, and in court life. I believe that women were underestimated in their jobs during this time. The highest praise which could then be given to a woman was that she had the mind and the courage of men. Although they did earn some rights, women were still forbidden to hold office, paternal powers in the family, receive inheritance and many other things. The wealthy women who were fortunate enough to receive a small form of education potentially could have done much more if they were given the same opportunities that men were given. Labor class women who did everything around the house, from shearing the sheep to raising the children, were also highly depreciated. The Renaissance in Western Europe brought forward new ideas and as Renaissance is defined, ?the revival or rebirth? so was the circle of society surrounding the women. Women were given the chance to take the higher step in society, which they tried jumping on, but were often pushed back down.
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