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Women in Retreat

Benedetta Craveri, translated from the Italian by Joan Sax

Storia delle donne in Occidente: Dal Rinascimento all’età moderna (A History of Women in the West: From the Renaissance to the Modern Era)

edited by Arlette Farge, edited by Natalie Zemon Davis
Plon (To be published by Harvard University Press in 1993), 567 pp., fr 270

Letteratura per il popolo in Francia (1600–1750) (Literature for the French People, 1600–1750)

by Giovanni Dotoli
Schena Editore, 405 pp., 40,000 lire (paper)

Ange ou diablesse: La représentation de la femme au XVIe siècle (Angel or Devil: The Representation of Women in the Sixteenth Century)

by Sara F. Matthews Grieco
Flammarion, 495 pp., fr 170 (paper)

Le travail des apparences: Le corps féminin, XVIIIe–XIXe siècle (The Work of Appearances: The Female Body in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries)

by Philippe Perot
Editions du Seuil, 280 pp., fr 43 (paper)

The first known female nude painting of the Renaissance, a work of 1540 by Jean Cousin, confronts visitors to the Louvre with supreme indifference. Seenin profile, like an ancient cameo, with her gaze fixed on some object invisibleto us, the beautiful young woman lounging on her right side with her body slightly elevated as if on an antique bed seems remote and inaccessible. Her pure white nudity appears to be protected by a veil of mystery. She could be taken forVenus were it not fora scroll hanging in the grotto in the background, on which is written in bold letters, “Eve the first Pandora.” Indeed, if one looks closely, there are no winged putti or bows or quivers of arrows or anything else to associate this splendid body with the fancies of love. The objects around the woman are very disturbing. The twig from an apple tree that she holds inher right hand could appear innocent, but the elbow supporting her raised body rests on a skull and the left arm is encircled by a serpent. Two elegant engraved urns, funeral in appearance, are the sole furnishings of the grotto.

So it is not Aphrodite, but Eve and Pandora who symbolically inhabit this perfect nude. Two cultural traditions, classical and biblical, are joined in Cousin’s painting as a warning to men of the sixteenth century about the snares of feminine beauty: woman is the source of all evil, engendering life but also death, devastation, and sin. Cousin’s painting also suggests, by a specific historical reference, that her cunning is stronger than the chains with which society tries to contain her, and that her powers of seduction are stronger than the prohibitions that attempt to keep her within bounds. Through its formal resemblance to Benvenuto Cellini’s bronze of Diane of Poitiers as the goddess of the hunt, the Eve-Pandora of the Louvre alludes to the most famous and scandalous “femme fatale” of the time, the powerful mistress of the king of France.1

This tragic image of the ambiguity of the daughters of Eve raises problems that are central in a number of impressive recent studies of women in history. A History of Women in the West: From the Renaissance to the Modern Era, ably edited by Natalie Zemon Davis and Arlette Farge, is the third volume in a series directed by Georges Duby and Michelle Perrot. Women of the Renaissance, a detailed study by the American scholar Margaret L. King, emphasizes the oppressive treatment of women in virtually every aspect of life between 1350 and 1650. Two more specialized studies illuminate specific themes while avoiding abstract theorizing: Sara F. Matthews Grieco’s scholarly iconographic study considers the contradictory angelic and demonic images of women in the sixteenth century, and Giovanni Dotoli deals with the image of women that emerges from the many volumes of the Bibliothèque bleue, a collection written under clerical direction for a popular audience, published in Troyes, and circulated throughout France by booksellers and peddlers.

A few years ago, in a French collection addressed to the question “Is Women’s History Possible?”2 Michelle Perrot, Arlette Farge, Jacques Revel, and others discussed whether or not it was methodologically defensible to speak of a history of women. Perrot warned of the impasse one arrives at by using the masculine-feminine dichotomy central to much feminist ideology. The world of women, she writes, cannot be isolated or extrapolated from the larger historical setting of which it is a part; it can be defined only in relation to the masculine world. It is more profitable, Revel argued, to study the social roles of both men and women in connection with each other and to investigate the relationships between the sexes and their differences. In the same vein, Arlette Farge insisted on the necessity of “studying the historical background in its entirety without restricting oneself to feminine spheres,” and on trying, whenever possible, to bring out “the diversity of the sexes.” The approach advocated by Revel and Farge is put into practice in A History of Women in the West. That the series is directed by both a man and a woman, and that men also contribute to all the volumes is itself a comment on the prejudice of some feminists that only women can legitimately speak of women.

In their introduction, Davis and Farge say they want to “explode the usual stereotype of women always being dominated and of men as their oppressors.” “The reality,” they write,

is so much more complex that one must examine it more closely. There is inequality, to be sure, but also space, slippery and difficult, in which women, neither doomed victims nor exceptional heroines, contribute in thousands of different ways as active subjects of history.

A direct consequence of this willingness to promote women from the “objects” to “subjects” of history is the division of the volume into three distinct parts. It begins with “Work and Days,” in which the lives of women are seen as part of the family, and the social,economic, and religious life of the times, and in which we are given much information about such matters as sexuality, love, maternity, aesthetics, and education. The second part describes the cultural, medical, literary, and philosophical works and images by which priests, educators, physicians, moralists, legislators, and artists, with few exceptions, attempted to protect their wives, daughters, sisters, and ultimately themselves from the sorcery of the Eve-Pandora that was thought to lurk within every woman. The third part takes up cases of women who were seen as having deviated from the norm. Whatever form her dissidence took—intellectual, criminal, or subversive—she generally did not get very far.

However surprising it may be, the Renaissance did not bring with it an improvement in the feminine condition but rather the reverse. Humanism rediscovered “man” but not woman. As centralized political powers, either monarchies or city-states, established themselves everywhere in Europe, the authority of the Church was extended to all forms of religious life, and civic life became subdivided into separate social strata each with its codified customs and habits. A more rigid definition of social roles helped to meet the need of official authority for order and control; and this authority, whether of Church or state, was always masculine.

Most serious of all, the spheres of activity in which women had some freedom and control narrowed. For example, the rediscovery during the Renaissance of Roman law, which is clearly unfavorable to women, weakened their position juridically. Women were entitled to own property but they could not dispose of it; legally and economically they remained under their husbands’ control, and most of the legal codes acknowledged the husband’s right to use force against his wife. Even in Thomas More’s libertarian Utopia the only authoritarian element remains the total subservience of the wife to her husband. The important positions women once held in religious and spiritual life, and in running charitable and relief organizations, as was shown in the proliferation of minor religious orders for women, gradually became diminished and less autonomous. With the Counter-Reformation women were no longer allowed to practice their religious vocation by serving as lay sisters assisting the poor and the sick and spreading God’s message among the lower classes. They were no longer permitted to organize themselves in communities and Beguinages. They could serve God only in the cloisters of the convents, under the rigorous spiritual control of a male cleric.

This “enclosure” movement, this tendency to isolate and segregate behavior that deviated from the norm, would become widespread in Europe and would affect equally the poor and the sick, misfits and vagabonds. If the aristocratic ethic had given upperclass women a position of considerable power and made of courtly love a religion, the bourgeois ethic saw in passion, in the giving of oneself to another, waste and disorder. The cult of honor gave way to the cult of patrimony and, once the grave demographic crisis of the early Middle Ages was over, women ceased to be regarded as having intrinsic value because they could bear children and became a burden on the family economy. “At the dawn of the Renaissance,” Margaret King writes,

their marriage usually required (especially in the areas that bordered the Mediterranean) an enormous fee that strained the resources of even wealthy families: the dowry.

From the instant of her birth, the prospect of a dowry loomed large over the female: she represented potential loss rather than potential gain. A dowry granted by the bride’s family to the groom’s only gained ascendancy over the male bridal gift in the twelfth century, but it escalated throughout the succeeding centuries and peaked in the Renaissance.

Directly proportional to the inflation of dowries, which reached alarming proportions in rich mercantile cities such as Florence and Venice, was the growing number of girls destined from an early age for the cloister.

The constant and prevailing desire for order, stability, and clearly defined social boundaries,” observes Sara Matthews Grieco (the author also of an essay entitled “Body, Appearance and Sexuality,” which appears in A History of Women), encouraged the difference in masculine and feminine gender to be accentuated during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, beginning with clothing and physical appearance. Men stop wearing long gowns and uncover their legs, allowing the use of breeches. Fuller skirts and closely fitting bodices emphasize the feminine characteristics of women. In the Middle Ages, for both men and women, straight forms prevailed with thin lines and slender bodices. Renaissance fashion imposed instead a standard of luxurious,milk-white beauty, establishing, as Philippe Perot observes in his Le Travail des apparences, an aesthetic canon which would prevail for almost three centuries. Plumpness and whiteness become a sure mark of social distinction, while lower-class and peasant women were exposed to the rigors of heat and cold, suffered from chronic hunger, and often abstained from eating the more substantial foods they prepared for men, in order to strengthen the masculine work force.

The dread of epidemics, an increased sense of modesty, and inadequate water resources in the large, crowded urban centers put an end to the medieval habit of having baths and frequently washing. Massages, perfumes, powders, and pomades became substitutes for water, and the use of underwear increased for purposes of bodily hygiene. (In Versailles, in the seventeenth century, fountains provided the only abundant running water that was not used for practical purposes, and their waste of water testified to the magnificence of the Sun King.)

Whereas men were classified according to their work or position, women were defined according to their relationships with men as mothers, daughters, or sisters, or according to their sexual status, as virgins, matrons, or widows. The controls imposed on women took such different forms for different social groups that the fates of women from different classes diverged to a point that they had little more in common than their biological identities. Life was terribly hard for the women of the lower classes, but in certain respects they had more freedom than their bourgeois sisters. They began work while still children, at about twelve, and therefore the family worried less about the expense of feeding them; and if they were capable and lucky, they could sometimes put aside a tiny nest egg to learn a trade, which would allow them to find a husband. Since economic self-sufficiency required time and effort for men as well, marriages in the lowest social levels occurred later in life, generally between the ages of twenty-five and twenty-eight; they were not always arranged by the families and could even include mutual attraction. When one has little to give and little to expect, it is easier to reach an agreement. Furthermore, the ostensible need for prolonged celibacy in the English and French countryside resulted in considerable tolerance of premarital sexual practices, and virginity was not indispensable to finding a mate.

  1. 1

    The painting of Cousin is analyzed by Françoise Borin in her essay entitled “Images of Women” (“Immagi di donne“) in A History of Women, Vol. III.

  2. 2

    Paris: Editions Rivages, 1984.

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