16th Century Literature
December 11, 2000
The Right to Read: First Step in Women's Rights
When one compares the 16th century (Tudor Era, 1500-1600) to the three centuries that precede it, it shows that women had made progress and had gained some rights. It may not have been a monumental change, but the accomplishments of these women helped lead to the freedom we have today. From the 13th to the 16th century (also known as the medieval times) was a period of stagnation. Not much changed in the lives or the mindset of the people. The 16th century was the beginning of the renaissance, a time of rebirth in culture and ideas.
To examine the changes of women's rights during this time period, I started by asking several questions. What was life like for women in the medieval times? How did their situation differ during the renaissance compared to the Dark Ages? What improvements and achievements were made? Who were the pioneers who brought about this change? Did men try to hinder women's progress, or did they help to make change? What were the general attitudes of both eras, regarding women? What were the exceptions to the rules? How great was the change in the amount of freedom women possessed?
To illustrate the mindset of the time is this 14th century Florentine proverb (Klapisch, pg. 13)
" A horse, whether good or bad,
needs a spur;
A woman, whether good or bad,
Needs a lord or master,
And sometimes a stick."
These words clearly go to show that men believed it was their duty to discipline women, like they were small children. In fact, women were treated then how we would treat children today. Females were always considered wards of someone else, whether it is their fathers, husbands, or even the church in the case of widows who no longer had husbands or family.
It was general belief among men that women had an evil nature that needed to be controlled. This school of thought may have started with the study of the Bible assuming that all women are molded after Eve, the rudimentary woman, and the original sinner.
However, the Virgin Mary was held high as blessed among women. Men revered their mothers. Almost all other women were deemed immoral.
Between the 13th and 16th centuries, the standard code of behavior and modesty rules for women were virtually unchanged from those of biblical times. The sole purpose for a female's existence was procreation. She was expected [^] above all other things- to be a good wife and mother, obeying her husband and in-laws without question. Her husband was to be the center of her universe, and she must hold a perfect love for him, even though he was only required to have moderate love for his wife.
Modesty was very important so those women did not overstep their boundaries. A female should not laugh in public. She could smile, but must show no teeth. She should never look straight ahead, but keep her eyes down low. Antonio of Florence gave the advice to women to "keep your eyes so low that nothing but where you put your feet matters to you." (Klapisch, pg. 95)
Husbands had not only authority over his wife's actions, bu6t custody over the female's body. Women were expected to reproduce often, which of course required sexual contact, but sexual pleasure was only for men. Married women jeopardized the integrity of their bodies for the good of the family. Even if married, the more chaste the woman, the better.
In writings from the medieval times rarely are ever seen writings by women. This is because most were illiterate and could not write. Men considered women who could read dangerous, just as the Catholic church did not want its parishioners to read bible passages. No one wanted to risk a revolution. Phillip de Novare stated to men
" Teach women niether letters, nor writing." (Klapisch, pg. 442)
The 16th century began the renaissance. Some things never change. The identity of women still depended on the males in her family. Women were still rewarded for and urged toward submissiveness. The attitude that women were defective and inferior did not completely go away.
Women who before stayed in the home tending children, stove, and fire were now working outside the home. However, they were not getting paid as much as men. The reasoning behind this was that men clothed and sheltered women, so they did not need to make as much money. Working class women were now expected to contribute to the family income. They could be a housemaid, or make silk and lace. In 1500 Flanders, England, women ruled the lace industry. (Duby, pg. 23) Although this was not an ideal situation, same work for unequal pay, it was a change from when women could not hold a job or even leave the house alone.
The rising rate of literacy among wives and daughters was the greatest progress of the 16th century. As wards of their husbands, wives could be given the right to be educated. The households that followed the beliefs of humanism were the ones most likely to educate women. Many humanist men made moves to treat their wives as almost equal. As children, both boys and girls were schooled, but the learning was gender specific. Boys were prepared for professions, but the girls were taught to run a household. Women could be taught to read, but not with men, and after the household chores were taken care of. A few women who were given the opportunity to be educated through a humanistic household took it as a chance to make change. Three predominant women of the time are Margaret Roper, Ann Boleyn, and Queen Elizabeth I.
Humanists believed that people could better themselves and focused on education and principle of the Greek scholars. Famous humanists of the 1500's included John Colet, William Grocyn, Erasmus, and Thomas Moore.
Thomas Moore is the first recognized Englishman to offer a humanist education for women. (Warnicke, pg. 17) He enforced his beliefs by practicing them at home. Therefore, his daughter, Margaret Roper, received extensive education as a child. Other writers regarded her as brilliant, and a great scholar. It was because of her father's humanist convictions that she was extended the possibility to even read.
" A learned woman could be a guide to her children in their education, and a delight to her husband who would gladly desert other men's company to share in her erudite conversations." says Thomas Moore (Warnicke, pg. 23). This mentality distinguishes itself form that of the past, where only men were thought capable of holding intelligent conversation.
Margaret wrote poetry and translated Bible verses. We will never know exactly how much she accomplished, because many of her works were lost or destroyed over time. She also made a point that all five of her children, including her three daughters, should be educated in both Latin and Greek.
Ann Boleyn was the second wife of Henry VIII. Her father was Sir Thomas Boleyn. Born in 1501, she was privileged enough to be one of the women of the time to be educated. Described by many others, who knew her as refined and intelligent, and also cultures, Ann danced, sang and also wrote poetry. These things attracted not only Wyatt, the court humanist to her, but also caught the attention of King Henry. Some say she used her looks and sexuality, but whether she did or not, she still became queen. However, she had power as queen and helped rule with Henry VIII. When she was unable to bear a son for the king, and when he lost interest in her, she was beheaded. What was significant about Ann Boleyn was that while Henry VIII tried to obtain a divorce form his first wife to marry her, it caused the split of the Catholic Church into two, Catholic and Protestant, which we still have today. One woman caused the split of an entire religious institution. Also, she provided for a humanist education for her daughter, who forever holds a place in history as the great Queen Elizabeth I.
Elizabeth was tutored by what is known as the 2nd school of humanists. The 1st school had educated her mother. Elizabeth was a master of languages, including French, English, Italian, and Latin. I believe it was her schooling and intellect, which enabled her to gain the respect of her country, and have great power in what, was still a man's world. Roger Asham spoke her of as " the best known woman humanist of the sixteenth century[sigma] with no womanly weakness". (Warnicke, pg. 96) She was also known as the Virgin Queen, which is how she portrayed herself, with dignity, wearing her fine dresses like armor. People did gossip about her and the few men in her life, wondering if she did have affairs. Most of the people, however, revered her much like the Virgin Mary (Warnicke, pg. 171) In spite of so much, she became a great queen. I firmly believe that without the aid of the education she obtained from her mother, that none of this would have ever been possible. Even now, five centuries later, she is remembered as a great ruler, in a time when women were [OE]defective'.
Each of these women had different advantages and obstacles. All three now hold places in literary and /or history books. Perhaps without their accomplishments, the women of today would still be repressed, illiterate, and sans the rights we now take for granted.
Klapisch-Zuber, Christine. A History of Women in the West [^] Silences of the Middle
Ages. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1992.
Duby, Georges and Perrot, Michelle. A History of Women in the West [^] Renaissance and
Enlightenment Paradoxes. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1993
Warnicke, Retha M. Women of the English Renaissance and Reformation. Greenwood
Press, Westport, CT, 1983.