Term Paper: Women After the Middle Ages

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Women After the Middle Ages and During the Renaissance

After the Middle Ages, the Renaissance heralded a period of profound change throughout Europe to varying degrees. A revival of classical antiquity occurred with vast economic growth, scientific and geographical innovation and discovery, and political and religious divergence. At the same time as these major transitions, domestic life and gender roles also played an active part in this new enlightened world. What about women's place, or what is sometimes called the "woman question" during this period? Only in recent years, have a number of books been written on gender in literature during the Renaissance period. In fact, debates continue on how much, if at all, the women's role changed from 1500 to 1750. Some scholars, such as Joan Kelly argue that "there was no renaissance for women, or least not during the Renaissance" (139). Other scholars recognize that there was not a major transition for the women's status over night, but there were considerable changes. Lily Braun and Alfred G. Meyer state, for example, state that "Hence for the female sex, the great achievement of the Renaissance was not that universities were opened up by women and that the fame of some individual female scholars filled he world at the time; it was the recognition of the woman as an autonomous human being." Such inconsistencies of the woman question are prevalent in literature, which runs from the freedom of expression by such literary figures as Amelia Bassano Lanyer and Rachel Speght, through the works of male authors such as Thomas Heywood and, to the other extreme of playwrights such as Ben Jonson whose females are inconsequential parodies.

According to Messbarger, "Ambivalence and disjuncture mark the reformative discourse about women of the Italian Enlightenment. Built upon a discordant integration of enlightened utilitarianism and conventional, androcentric notions of the polity, the Italian philosophes' answer to the 'Woman Question' simultaneously contests and confirms traditional constructions of femininity." One can observe a similar situation occurring in other areas of Renaissance Europe as, as well.

For some women authors, for example, participation in such an exciting world of Enlightenment provided the opportunity of writing their works for a public audience, which could only be done by men in prior years. As a result, with a new vitality and strong measure, many women made it a point to publish their writings, frequently with the intent to motivate other females to join in this new enlightened world as well. This naturally took courage, since the woman (especially if she used her own name) was opening herself up to a public that was conflicted in how it saw the woman question.

It is important to remember that while on the one hand enlightenment offered women more opportunities, on the other, women were still just as much, if not more restrained. There still remained so-called conduct and marriage books, for example, that provided specific values and norms that women had to follow. For example, Baldesar Castiglione, Duke of Urbino, and spokesman for Italian court life, devoted the third book of his the Courtier to the woman question, in a thorough discussion regarding the moral, social, and political status of women. Sections from this included:

I hold that many virtues of the mind are as necessary to a woman as to a man; also, gentle birth; to avoid affectation, to be naturally graceful in all her actions, to be mannerly, clever, prudent, not arrogant, not envious, not slanderous, not vain, not contentious, not inept, to know how to gain and hold the favor of her mistress and of all others, to perform well and gracefully the exercises that are suitable for women. And I do think that beauty is more necessary to her than to the Courtier, for truly that woman lacks much who lacks beauty.

As well as:

I say that, in my opinion, in a Lady who lives at court a certain pleasing affability is becoming above all else, whereby she will be able to entertain graciously every kind of man with agreeable and comely conversation suited to the time and place and to the station of the person with whom she speaks, joining to serene and modest manners, and to that comeliness that ought to inform all her actions, a quick vivacity of spirit whereby she will show herself a stranger to all boorishness; but with such a kind manner as to cause her to be thought no less chaste, prudent, and gentle than she is agreeable, witty, and discreet.

Rachel Speght was one of the writers who took advantage of the "loop hole," so to speak, of woman's opportunity for self-publishing. Speght was the first English woman to write a feminist polemic under her own name. Born in 1597 to a Calvinist minister, she was a well-educated woman from middleclass London. Her two works

Mouzell for Melastomus and Mortalities Memorandum, were both feminist in nature and a reflection of her religious background. She married a minister, William Procter, in 1621 (Lewalkski).

In 1617, John Swetnam wrote a misogynist pamphlet called the Arraignment of Women purposely to motivate others to debate about the women question that had been festering for centuries. This discussion was partly a game played by men for their own entertainment or the patronage of women, or a serious talk of women's talents and lawful roles, or a marketing effort by publishers to sell more of these relatively cheap books (Lewalkski)

In response to Swetnam, unlike a number of the others who retorted, Speght did not enter into rhetorical gamesmanship, but instead re-interpreted the Bible in a straightforward manner. Also, she did not apologize for believing she had the right to comment on scripture in any way she wanted. Her work, Mouzell, a strictly religious work, was restrained perhaps because she published under her own name. However, she also interpreted scripture in a female-friendly fashion and offered an alternative to the traditional, misogynist understanding of the Bible creation story. She intended for her work to be taken seriously in order to refute Swetnam and anyone else who intended to use scripture to debase or devalue women (Lewalski).

For example, in one excerpt she noted that God created man in his own image, in "wisdom, righteousness, and true holiness." Since Adam did not have anyone "to commerce or converse with but dumb creatures" and all the other animals had mates, God decided to form a help mate for Adam. He put Adam into a deep sleep, took a rib from his side, and created Eve from it; "showing thereby that man was as an imperfect building before woman was made." In addition, God intended Eve to be a solace to Adam, to share his sorrows and pleasures and burden. "Thus the resplendent love of God toward man appeared, in taking care to provide him an helper before he saw his own want, and in providing him such an helper as should be meet for him."

Similarly, Specht discussed why God created woman: "The efficient cause of woman's creation: woman was created by God. Just as a good fountain cannot bring forth foul water, God can only create things which are good. Therefore, woman is good." (Lewalski).

Amelia Bassano Lanyer similarly relied on scripture to make her arguments regarding the woman question. Supposedly coming from a family of court musicians and of Jewish descent, Lanyer grew up in noble circles and was well-educated in the mid-1500s. The book Salve Deus Rex Judeorum (of which the poem,"The Description of Cookham," is included) was Lanyer's revolutionary rewriting of Christian history that contained "some of the most strikingly feminist poetry by a woman of her time," with such profound statements as, "it is Adam, not Eve, who brings ruin on humanity" (Travitsky & Prescott 30).

Salve Deus Rex Judeorum included a host of characters: Lanyer, her Queen, Anne Clifford and her mother, Lady Margaret, Dowager Countess of Montgomery, as well as significant biblical characters as Eve, Pontius Pilate's wife, and a sequence of female heroines who save the Jewish people from oppression. The book, which was written from a woman's point-of-view, opened with nine dedicatory poems to royal and noble ladies and a prose dedication to the Countess of Cumberland, who was also a patron of Edmund Spenser and Samuel Daniel (Payne & Hunter 824).

Lanyer's powerful aristocratic women engaged in a dialogue about women's historical reputation and ability for creative excellence that extended from Genesis to her own recent farewell to the estate Cookham, where she began to see herself as a poet with world-class goals. The gods' generosity and protection rescued Lanyer's creative and sensitive mind from a difficult life serving as wife to a minor courtier in a loveless marriage. She said in her dedication to Salve Deus Rex Judaorum, "Often have I heard that it is the property of some women, not only to emulate the virtues and perfections of the rest, but also by all their powers of ill speaking, to ecclipse the brightness of… [END OF PREVIEW]

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