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 Cousin’s painting also suggests, by a specific historical reference, that her cunning is stronger than the chains with which society tries to contain her, and that her powers of seduction are stronger than the prohibitions that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.

The fine contribution to A History of Women by Olwen Hufton, “Women, Work, and Family,” concentrates on Great Britain and shows clearly how the struggle for survival drove women to leave the domestic hearth and work side by side with men in the fields and in the streets, in the inns as well as in the shops. Country women, according to Hufton, were not seen as producing money but as suppliers of largely unpaid services within the family. For the relatively prosperous farmer’s wife, for instance,

the lending of support services in the family economy could mean a wide range of obligations depending upon the affluence of the household. Tending livestock, growing vegetables, keeping bees, sewing, mending, preserving, lending a hand at harvest and exploiting the family’s gleaning rights in the community were among the services…which could fall to her.

These, however, might appear as somewhat privileged duties in the eyes of simple peasant women overburdened by a crushing and often unpleasant workload.

Women were water carriers to steep mountain terraces in areas where the terrain was difficult and water scarce. The terraces themselves could be composed of earth placed there in buckets by women’s efforts. They cut and dried turf, collected kelp, firewood, weeds by the roadside to feed rabbits. They milked cows and goats, grew vegetables, collected chestnuts and herbs. The commonest source of heating for British, and some Irish and Netherlands farmers, was dried animal turds which were gathered by hand by women and received their final drying out process stacked near the family fire. Hay making and harvesting were heavy spells of work and weeding had to be done in all weather. Small wonder that women liked spinning. It gave them the chance to sit down for a few hours while productively occupied.

Many women found work outside the fields, since “cheap female labor was critical in the development of European textile industries” and, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, female servants were the largest “occupational group in urban society, accounting for about twelve percent of the total population of any European town or city.” Though they were underpaid, rejected by the guild halls, employed inthe heaviest and least skilled jobs, and endured violence and misery, the women of the lowest classes were not shut in. In the makeshift economy in which most families lived in early modern Europe, they were bound to their husbands by a pact of solidarity in the struggle to survive. They had a major role in daily work and life and not merely bit parts.

As one goes up the social scale, women are no longer asked to contribute to the family economy. Rather, through their personal appearance and accomplishments they reflect their husband’s prestige. A woman’s distinction, her beauty, and her elegance are trophies of male pride, instantly recognizable symbols of his success. But serving such a purpose subordinates her even more to the control and authority of her husband. At about the same time that the daughters of the lowest classes begin to work, upper-class daughters are preparing for marriage. Their future is decided for them and the destiny that places them at the crossroads between two families makes their position more tenuous within both. By perpetuating the family they are expected to guarantee the continuation of the patrimony and the family name. As Martin Luther put it, “even if pregnancies consume them with fatigue or even exhaustion, that is why they exist.” And if that is true for all women, it is doubly so for those of the privileged classes.

The life of Renaissance women in the family is reconstructed in great detail in Margaret King’s book, Women of the Renaissance, which leaves no doubt that maternity was a severe test for rich and poor alike.

For many women, “unkindly” labor meant death: perhaps as many as ten percent of mothers died as a consequence of childbirth…. The mothers who survived often lived to face the death of the baby they had borne at such risk. Child mortality was a fact made relentless by epidemic disease, chronic malnutrition, and unrelieved filth…. Only twenty to fifty percent of western Europeans could hope to survive childhood.

Since they married late, lower-class women brought comparatively fewer children into the world, but these children, nursed by their mothers, had a greater chance of surviving. Women of the privileged classes were not allowed to nurse their children for reasons of prestige and because it was thought that nursing delayed the possibility of a new pregnancy. Thus, for them, being almost continually pregnant was not necessarily compensated for by the certainty that their babies would survive.

While women were under pressure to be fertile, they also had to be chaste. Female sexuality was generally regarded as dangerous. With their immoderate appetites women were thought to threaten the vitality of men—when they didn’t rob them of their patrimony by bringing illegitimate children into the world. Wasn’t the pact that Eve made with Satan renewed, in the case of witches, precisely through the sexual act? Though not necessarily linked, these fears accompanied the Renaissance man as he made his way toward the modern era. His misogyny, rooted in the Christian tradition, found authoritative confirmation in the rediscovery of ancient thought. And despite woman’s subjugation, she continued to be perceived as Eve or Pandora, and to be denounced as a source of danger, as can be seen in two kinds of printed works in which men discussed women: the first, for both a cultured and plebeian public, mainly used images, sometimes with the help of brief captions; the second, addressed solely to the lower classes, consisted largely of texts in which images served as a pedagogical aid.

Sara Matthews Grieco’s study of the printed images of women in the sixteenth century and, in particular, of emblems and engravings, concentrates on the first type. The message that emerges from the thousands of images she examines is always the same: the female has a double nature, she is always contradictory. Good or bad, saint or demon, Virgin Mary or Eve, she is the incarnation of a series of positive virtues to which there are corresponding vices. The allegorical figures of Diligence and Industry, which are identified with the good housewife, are contrasted with Sloth and Poverty, represented by idle peasant women or vagabonds in rags. A contradiction within herself, she is also contrasted with men by means of a more general twofold division along cosmic lines. According to the Pythagorean tradition, she is the lunar, dark aspect of the universe in contrast to the positive solar characteristics of man. Woman is also, according to Saint Paul in hisletter to the Ephesians (a milestone of Christian antifeminism), physical, sensual, natural, while man is spiritual, rational, cultured.

The ideological message transmitted by the vast collection of images that Sara Matthews Grieco has skilfully deciphered betrays deep anguish. Woman is a negative force who must be dominated. But the fear that she arouses, Matthews Grieco observes, is also a way of recognizing her central place in society:

Placed on the crest between nature and culture, between the masculine world and the feminine kingdom, woman posed for the man of the sixteenth century an enduring and unresolved problem of classification. The second sex is double, and this female duality gives structure to the male world at the same time as it puts it into question.

A century later the anonymous clerks who were responsible for the texts and illustrations of the Bibliothèque bleue reinvented a feminine archetype capable of taking hold of the popular imagination. In Literature for the French People (1600–1750), Giovanni Dotoli has found in the Bibliothèque bleue the voice of the Counter-Reformation which, in volume after volume, pronounces its indictment of womankind as the source of iniquity. The Catholic Church, determined to exercise control over the life of the people and to completely take control of popular rites and celebrations of births, deaths, engagements, and weddings, began to promote through these little books a moralistic campaign inspired by the new ideal of purity that emerged from the Council of Trent. Dotoli describes the denigrating fantasies recounted by J. de Marconville in his Bibliothèque bleue publication, De la Bonté et mauvaitié des femmes (1613). To conceal her own pregnancy as well as that of a niece, a woman supposedly succeeded in convincing people that two infants had been miraculously conceived in fifteen days. Another, named Violenta, was said to have strangled her former fiancée, cut out his tongue, heart, eyes, and stomach and have thrown the rest of him out the window “after having enjoyed with him every delight of eros.” There was no aspect of sexual life that was not examined, denounced, and forbidden. Conjugal love had to be chaste, and sexual intercourse was justified only for procreative purposes. “The female body, seat of sin, must henceforth be controlled even within one’s own walls, in the solitude of her being.”

But why had this furious and violent attack against women taken place? Dotoli gives two convincing reasons for the new wave of antifeminism, both of great consequence. For the compilers of the Bibliothèque bleue the woman is seen as “the true proprietor of popular culture” and “the bearer of a vision of the world viewed as pagan.” The clerical writers felt the need to discredit her, and to destroy her prestige in the eyes of her own people because they wanted to weaken her resistance. In the grand pedagogic plan that was imposed by the authorities presiding over French national culture—a culture that tended to be homogeneous, religiously orthodox, and modern—the woman identified with a popular culture that was often anarchic and pagan was undoubtedly an impediment to be neutralized.

And yet, reading Sara Matthews Grieco’s book, we cannot fail to notice that the female figure is also used continually for allegorical images representing the most important social and cultural values, such as the Theological and Cardinal Virtues, the Arts and Sciences, and Faith and Truth. To be sure, such images are part of the medieval tradition of courtly idealism, and they reflect as well the contemporary effects of Neoplatonic philosophy, but there is also a much simpler and more immediate explanation for them. “Female personification,” Grieco writes, “rests mainly on the aesthetic decorative exploitation of the acknowledged beauty of women, who, in this respect, are considered clearly superior to men.”

The importance of beauty in social life, along with its “political function,” is in fact one of the two innovative historical themes that emerge in the book edited by Davis and Farge. The chapter “The Aesthetic: tactical mask, strategy or veiled identity,” by Véronique Nahoum-Grappe, persuasively argues that the Renaissance woman, subjected as she was to masculine authority, limited by prohibitions, cut off from knowledge, nevertheless could on occasion exert virtually unconstrained dominion by centering all eyes on herself, and by using her physical beauty as a tactic to take part in society. “This tactic is not directed toward purely sexual seduction,” Nahoum-Grappe writes:

“Coquettery” is not a tactic which aims necessarily at the destruction of the other, but simply at the existence of the self, asa human being who, having caught the attention of the other, can at last put forth her own point of view, her own way of existing in and thinking about the world.

The moralists and preachers clearly recognized the dangers of beauty. Why then did their denunciations of the fraud of makeup, the immodesty of decolleté, the opulence of dress have so little effect? Why were women permitted to enter this dangerous field of action?

Because, and here we come to the second strong point put forward in Davis and Farge’s history, women are indispensable to masculine society and have a political function in the society. “The brilliant courts of Europe,” Davis writes in her own essay, “Women in Politics,”

so important to the prestige of the royal person and to the whole system of monarchical governance required women and men both. If women never sat as counselors on the sovereign’s privy council, they took part in the conversation—political and personal—that filled the halls, chambers, and bedrooms of the royal palace.

Beginning in the early seventeenth century, at least in France, the conversations Davis refers to multiplied and moved from the royal halls of the Louvre to the “blue room” of Madame de Rambouillet and from there they took over, one after another, the great drawing rooms of the aristocracy, the financiers, and the Parisian bourgeoisie. The women of the elite classes were no longer only a necessary adornment of the old system of courtly courtesy; they became central to the new worldly society that was increasingly admired throughout Europe, and reached a high point in the salons of the eighteenth century.

The legal status of women showed no sign of improvement while the prejudices against them were exemplified in the “querelle des femmes,” the debate over whether women should be well-educated, which dragged on throughout the century. Illustrious antifeminists such as Boileau and La Bruyère continued to recommend that women’s education be drastically curtailed. Nevertheless, a deep and irreversible change was taking place in attitudes toward women. What protected them was the “bienséances” (good manners), the body of unwritten norms, more powerful than any law, by means of which the aristocracy defined itself. Since she could not aspire to classical erudition, culture would make itself more worldly and accessible for her, with notable consequences for the development of French language and literature. A woman might be derided if she took up the pen as a writer, but everyone, Descartes and Fontenelle among the first, wanted her as a reader. Finally, if male authority still decided for her what she should learn, men could not do without her subtle advice and instruction if they were to learn how to live in society.

In the chapter “From Conversation to Creation,” in the third part of A History of Women, which is devoted to dissident women, Claude Dulong sees in female conversation a substitute for the literary creativity to which women had no access. Here, in spite of Dulong’s statements to the contrary, we find an instance of the familiar tendency to project current preoccupations on our forebears. The notion that writing by women is a privileged means of self-affirmation, an activity of preeminent value, is a modern myth. In fact, conversation was in itself considered a high form of artistic creation, as one can clearly see from the many theoretical reflections on the subject, by such writers as Chevalier de Méré, Saint-Evremond, or La Rochefoucauld. To construct one’s own social image, little by little, in one encounter after another, with the conscious aim of speaking with lucidity and wit, was not, for members of the French aristocracy of the ancien régime, an expedient they were forced to adopt, but rather a conscious exercise in shaping one’s own appearance and inner behavior as a kind of work of art.

Because of the central position that France, with its special talent for “sociabilité,” occupies in this volume of the History of Women, and because France was the center for important changes in the condition of women in the eighteenth century,3 Davis and Farge make good on their promise to see women not in isolation but as part of the historical process.

On the other hand, the state of mind with which we close Margaret King’s book is much less encouraging. Her study of the three centuries between 1350 and 1650 ends, it is true, just when some progress occurred in the condition of women, at least in some countries. But if we compareher point of view to that of A History of Women in the West, we see that she takes a quite different approach. Through a vast amount of careful research, King wants to reconstruct women’s exclusions, deprivations, and sufferings. Of the book’s three main sections—Woman in the Family, Women and the Church, and Exceptional Players—the most relevant is devoted to religious life. For those who were not forced into it, the convent, King tells us, offered the only real possibility for the women of the Renaissance to escape male tyranny and to have freedom to read, study, and meditate. In addition, “By the observance of chastity, a woman was removed from the cycles of sexuality and birth and freed from the negative image of seductress.” In this perspective, the Reformation seems to King a step backward for the female condition because if, on the one hand, more women secured the right to a minimum of schooling in order to approach the sacred texts, on the other hand she was largely deprived of any possibility of fleeing the shadow of the Church and even her relationship with God was subject to the authority of the male head of the family.

Religion not only made possible the one radical challenge to male dominated society; it was also the sole sphere in which women could equal men. Saints, mystics, visionaries, and lay sisters took up that challenge and embarked on the ascetic life. After all, to learn to do without, to detach oneself from society, and to negate oneself as a social being could also mean being one’s own person and removing oneself from the control of an abusive authority. Men and institutions were only pale shadows in the light of the Word of God. One had only to be attentive and to respond to His call. Thus equal at last, some women were able to transform the virtues of the oppressed—patience, obedience, and self-sacrifice—into special privileges for gaining an audience in the heavenly city. No longer Eve or Pandora, the mystical brides had, as their only dowry, their faith.

Translated from the Italian by Joan Sax and the author

This Issue

December 19, 1991