Agent Woman

Tutorial Essay: Trinity (Summer) 2013

General History VII: 1409-1525

Did women’s agency decline in this period?

Women’s agency requires examination in order to question whether women experienced a ‘Renaissance’. Whilst the fifteenth century was a time of cultural and economic growth for many areas of Europe, women did not necessarily share in this. In the early twentieth century Alice Clark’s analysis of the seventeenth century idealised the pre-industrial era as a time of freedom for women. She argued that this was subsequently eroded in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries through the rise of a capital economy and Reformation ideology. However, revisionists have struggled to locate this so-called ‘golden age,’ instead highlighting continuities. A further problem is that as Hufton has emphasised, there is ‘no one woman to represent all women.’ ‘Women’ were not a monolithic entity but a group divided by age, socio-economic background, location, and religion. Experience differed vastly according to location, social status, and stage of life cycle. Factors such as economic change, ideology and demographics all impacted on women’s agency, for example labour shortages caused by plague and famine temporarily lent women more bargaining power. In order to examine women’s agency, it is therefore necessary to look at differing aspects of their lives, including work, the status of widows, marriage patterns, ideology and practice, social status, and religion. In all of these areas women experienced a contraction in agency over the period, but in some aspects they were already restricted whilst in others they were more capable of manoeuvring and manipulating their situation.

Women worked throughout the period, participating in a range of economic activity, but the status of these jobs changed over time. The Black Death and subsequent plagues and famines of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries had created a labour shortage which had benefited all wage workers by giving them more room to negotiate. Since women’s work had been more marginal, their relative gains appeared great.  However, once demographic recovery set in, this was reversed. As Klapisch-Zuber has argued, the first half of the fifteenth century ‘was, in fact, an interlude’ rather than an established ‘golden age.’ Women lacked an established work identity and formal training, and remained partially economically dependent on the household. Additionally, legal limitations were increasingly placed on women working, and so as Goldberg argues, ‘women were never able to consolidate their position in the labour market.’ Hanawalt argues that capitalism ultimately destroyed domestic industries and so wives became stagnant as workers, suggesting that changes in market forces and production marginalised women. This implies that women’s agency decreased over the period, because whilst women continued to work, it was valued less and less.

Domestic service was increasingly feminised; even excluding nurses, 37% of Florentine servants pre-1400 were female, from 1400-1450 this had risen to 65%, and by 1450-1500 78%.Additionally, the profile of domestic workers shifted from married to single women. Klapisch-Zuber estimates from 1400-1449 23.5% of female domestic workers were single, 47.1% married, and 29.4% widowed. By 1450-1499 this had changed to 52.7% single, 25.3% married, and 22% widows. Whilst caution should be used in reading anything into statistics, this could imply that work became perceived to be less respectable for married women, or that more single women were working to gain economic independence before marriage. Salaries fluctuated – female domestic workers in Florence 1400-1409 were earning on average 51 soldi per month whilst men earned 79.1, from 1460-69 women earned 55 and men 56, and by 1520-1529 women earned 50 and men 45. Throughout women nurses earned more than both, since they were valued as having higher skills.  Since salaries tend to reflect authority and importance, this demonstrates how male workers were paid more and thus had more agency at the start of the period, but as domestic service became feminised women earned more than men but pay remained low. The status of domestic service was eroded and skilled men moved into other areas, whilst women’s work continued to be low status.

In other trades, women’s work was marginalised through exclusion from networks of support. In Leiden, Holland, the wool cloth trade was not a monopoly and individual artisans had considerable independence, though this did not necessarily translate to political power. In the fifteenth century municipal authorities prevented the formation of guilds and instead formed ‘crafts’ which were under their regulations. The imposition of schedules made combining work and household responsibilities difficult, and since women often had to leave work for periods of pregnancy, childbirth and childcare, they were increasingly marginalised. By 1508 the finishers ‘craft’ forbade women from training, and so access to high skilled jobs became more difficult. Similarly in Cologne, whilst women were part of the silk guilds they were male run and women merely inspected the goods. Increasing regulations meant that whilst women’s job profile did not change radically and work continued at a similar rate and level, its status decreased. In Norwich in 1511 worsted weavers tried to exclude women from working whilst in 1466 they had admitted Elizabeth Baret (who was single) to the franchise of the city. This demonstrates how economic organisation across Europe but particularly in the North West gradually excluded women from skilled, better paid jobs by denying them access to training and established support networks. Goldberg contrasts this with Mediterranean Europe, arguing that the Florence catasto of 1427 suggests women already had little independence and were less likely to work in the early half of the fifteenth century. He argues that this is a result of marriage patterns; in Tuscany women married younger than in North and West Europe, and emphasis was placed on their staying in their parents’ house to protect their virtue until marriage.

Nevertheless, women were able to find work and support themselves, particularly as widows. Christine de Pizan can be seen as the first female professional writer, working at the courts of Louis of Orleans, Philip the Bold of Burgundy, John the Fearless of Burgundy and Charles VI of France. This was after she was widowed in her mid-twenties and had to earn a living for herself and her young children. In The Book of Fortune’s Transformation (1403) she describes this as a physical change, saying ‘I, who was formerly a woman, am now in fact a man.’ She uses the metaphor of a shipwreck to describe her husband’s death, and says, ‘as soon as I learned how to direct the bailing out, I became a good master… Thus I became a true man (this is no fable), capable of taking charge of the ship.’ This demonstrates that women were capable of managing their own lives successfully, but also highlights that to do so ‘masculinised’ her, showing that ideologically, work and independence belonged primarily to men.

Widowhood was the majority of women’s major opportunity for a degree of independence, since in addition to meaning women had some financial autonomy and were often able to run their own household rather than being under parental or a husband’s authority, the status itself conferred respectability. However, this was subject to local custom, and widows could be manipulated and placed under constraints despite this perceived opportunity for agency. In 1422 Francesco Davizi called his recently widowed sister Lena an ‘ungracious female’ because she refused to follow her brothers’ wishes and remarry, instead choosing to become a nun. Despite the fact she had young children, she dispersed her property, investing most of her money in a farm for her children’s future rather than leaving her brothers to manage her affairs, and dividing 100 florins equally between an old woman and another of her brothers, placing an elderly unrelated female on the same level as a close, male family member. However, Chabot argues that this case was exceptional and that widows were not usually so free to act. The Davizi brothers were trading in London whilst Lena was in Foligno, and this distance allowed her to outmanoeuvre their wishes. Many widows had to conform to their family’s wishes; in 1448 twenty year old widow Tancia Bandini wished to enter a nunnery and subsequently made arrangements with a notary to do so, despite her father wanting her to remarry. However, soon after she is recorded as marrying a silk merchant. Widows, particularly young ones who were still marriageable, faced considerable pressure from families. This was especially so in Florence, where the custom of tornata by which widows had right of asylum in their parental house, was as Chabot argues, ‘often a denial of rights.’ Additionally, laws on inheritance reduced the agency of widows in Florence; in 1415 a law stating that a widow’s children from her previous marriage would transfer their inheritance rights to her new husband even if she died childless was made in order to enhance widows’ ability to remarry, but benefiting second husbands. In order to combat this, first husbands gave their wives rights in their wlls, with a third of Florentine husbands naming their wives domina et usufructuria omnium bonorum and giving them rights over their estate in event of death, conditional on the wife remaining ‘chaste’ and ‘honest’. Chabot argues that, ‘to guarantee the superiority of patrilineal family ties and ensure the male monopoly over the transmission of wealth, Florentines of the Renaissance toyed with maternity.’ Whilst widows ideologically, in law, and in literature appeared to have independence, in practice depending on their age, status, location, and personality, this was much less certain or achievable.

Marriage was an important stage of most women’s lives, and impacted heavily on their agency. Whilst both Church and law reinforced that wives were subordinate to husbands, with husbands being responsible for their wives’ morality and possessions, marriage was not a removal of all women’s (limited) rights. Gratian’s Decretum in the twelfth century had emphasised that consent is what made marriage, and that ‘no woman who is unwilling ought ever to be joined to anyone.’ In addition, no spouse was allowed to be celibate without the other’s consent, and clandestine marriage was forbidden.  Whilst this meant that marital rape was not recognised, it demonstrates that women did have some rights within marriage. This theoretical limited equality was influenced in practice by the relative age of couples. Hufton argues that marriage was a signifier of entry into the adult community. However, this did not immediately translate into agency. Whilst in North and West Europe, females from the age of 12 often left home to work and gain some economic independency before getting married to a man of a similar age and setting up a new, separate household, women in southern Europe married younger and tended to live in a multi-generational household. This age gap meant that in Mediterranean Europe, wives were generally more subservient to their husbands.

Social status intersected with marriage in determining levels of agency. Subservient language was still used by wives addressing husbands, but this does not mean they were completely acquiescent. In the fifteenth century Paston family letters, Margaret refers regularly to her husband subserviently as ‘Right revered and worshipful husband.’ This language reflects the expected deference from wife to husband, but wives could still act on their own within this obedient framework. For example, in February 1449 Margaret writes ‘beeseeching’ her husband ‘that ye be not displeased though I have left the place that ye left me in.’ Whilst she emphasises her submissive status, it is clear that she has acted on her own initiative in her husband’s absence. Noble and gentry wives had the ability to exercise some control over their husband’s lands particularly if they were absent trading, at war, or at court. In 1405, Christine de Pizan wrote in A Medieval Woman’s Mirror of Honour: The Treasury of the City of Ladies ‘these women spend most of their lives in households without husbands…so the ladies will have responsibilities for managing their property, their revenues, and their lands.’ Women were seen as able to run estates, but only in their subservient  role as wife; Christine continues, ‘she must manage it so well that by conferring with her husband, her gentle words and good counsel will lead to their agreement to follow a plan for the estate.’ Though this demonstrates that there was a way for women to have agency, it must be remembered that it comes from a prescriptive text so does not necessarily translate to reality.

Women could have extreme influence in rare cases, dependent usually on their status.  Important examples are Queens such as Isabella of Castile and Margaret of Anjou who both claimed to rule land in their own right. Whilst in France, Salic law prevented women from holding the crown or the line of kinship passing through the female line, women were still able to rule elsewhere although this was not without complication. Additionally, wives (and other relatives) of Kings and Lords could manipulate their position and have a wide ranging influence on politics. Felice della Rovere, illegitimate daughter of Pope Julius II, who Murphy describes as ‘the most powerful woman in Rome of her day,’ was one such woman. Her connection to the Pope, as well as her marriage into the wealthy Orsini family, gained her influence within the Roman Curia. For example, she sometimes ruled as Chatelaine at her father’s palazzo in Savona, the symbolic seat of power. Murphy argues that Felice’s status enabled her independence; she was able as a young widow in her 20s to turn down a number of advantageous matches that her father had tried to arrange. Because she was a valuable asset to the Pope, she had a lot of bargaining power. The Venetian ambassador wrote in 1505 about the attempt to negotiate a marriage between Felice and the Prince of Salerno, ‘the lady has contested it, which she has done simply by saying no, and that she has not shown respect towards her father, who has wished for the union.’ Nevertheless this was an exception rather than the rule; only women connected to influential men were able to exert such a degree of influence, and to some extent social status rather than gender was more important in having political agency.

Cavallo and Warner argue that outside of religion and charity, the public role was ‘usually barred to women.’ Whilst this can be challenged, it is true that it was easier for women to exert more agency in a religious context than in many others. This requires examination. Mack has argued that in the sixteenth century, female prophets were portrayed by men so as to reinforce preconceptions of the volatile, arguing that, ‘respectable women were constrained by convention to behave with humility and modesty, the female visionary was constrained to behave as though she were literally out of her mind’. These ideas were also present in the fifteenth century, as commentaries on Margery Kempe and Joan of Arc show. Margery Kempe’s account of her pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the early fifteenth century describes her visions and behaviour, such as refusing to eat for days on end. Those she was travelling with were angry at this yet the book states, ‘notwithstanding all their malice, she was held in more worship than they were, wherever they went.’ Her companions paid attention to her prophecies, for example following her lead on which ship to sail in. For a married woman of middling status, this influence was abnormal but rested on her religiosity. Christine de Pizan’s account of Joan of Arc’s life, written in 1429 (before her capture and execution) emphasises her sex, calling her a ‘tender virgin,’ ‘blessed Maid,’ and ‘a woman, a simple shepherdess, braver than any man ever was in Rome.’ Pizan avoids any mention of Joan’s cross-dressing, instead focussing on Joan’s combined feminine innocence and religiosity. Ultimately, Pizan appeals for loyalty to Charles VII of France, exhorting: ‘The Maid, following God’s commands, makes [the king] do this. Give yourselves and your hearts to him as loyal Frenchmen!’ Whilst celebrating the female military leader, this is intimately associated with her religiosity. Religion allowed women to take on an active public role, because the explanation for their activity transcended their bodies.

Overall, women’s position did deteriorate throughout the period particularly in the area of work, as demographic recovery kicked in and economic organisations such as guilds and crafts increasingly excluded women. Women’s work, which was already less stable than men’s work, became relegated to the supplementary and makeshift. Women’s economic activity remained tied to their life cycle (as well as social status) and was centred on the family as subsistence work. The lack of apprenticeships and training excluded women from most forms of skilled work, although there were some exceptions such as midwifery. Widows had more opportunity than most women for economic independence, but fathers, husbands, and other family members were often able to exploit patrimonial rights to lay claim to their property and widows were often pressured into remarriage. Nevertheless, as Murphy says, widowhood was ‘the only status in which an unmarried woman could live honourably in the outside world.’ Religion gave further opportunities for women, and entering a convent was often an option but this excluded the outside world. Women who were publically religious, such as Margery Kempe and Joan of Arc faced considerable criticism and challenges, and in Joan’s case, prison and death. Within marriage, women were ostensibly subservient but with limited rights, and in some cases were able to trade and/or rule estates on their husband’s behalf. Therefore women did have some agency, but it was always limited and was substantially eroded throughout the period. Women did not all accept this, however; Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies, written in France in the early fifteenth century and published widely in Flanders and England by the start of the sixteenth century, defended the importance of women’s contributions to society, for example claiming that women had the understanding to sit as judges if they were trained, and argued that women could be useful members and leaders of society if they were given a chance.


(The original has footnotes but I haven’t worked out how to do those in wordpress.)

Amt, Women’s Lives in Medieval Europe

Blumenfeld-Kosinski & Brownlee (tr.), The Selected Writings of Christine de Pizan

Cavallo & Warner, Widowhood in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

Chabot, ‘Lineage Strategies and the Control of Widows in Renaissance Florence’

Goldberg, Women, Work, and Life Cycle in a Medieval Economy

Hanawalt, Women and Work

Howell, ‘Women, the Family Economy, and the Structures of Market Production’

Hufton, The Prospect Before Her

Klapisch-Zuber, ‘Women Servants in Florence’

Mack, Gender and History in Western Europe

Murphy, The Pope’s Daughter


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