In stark contrast with the role of women in society today, the role of women during the Renaissance period was very limited. For most women, the best they could hope for, and the only thing they were conditioned to aspire to was to marry. The destiny of most women were to find a man, marry him and bear his children.
Women were often placed in arranged agreements to marry as early as the age of eight years old. A woman in the Renaissance usually got married somewhere between the ages of sixteen and twenty years old. Marriages were arranged not for reasons of romantic love, but for business reasons, in the interest of trade relations, and sometimes to make or maintain peace between families. Women married at a young age in order to increase the chances of producing as many heirs as possible. A woman would have a dowry, or gift presented to her husband, at the time of her marriage. A dowry could be anything from a monetary sum to livestock for her husband’s farm. A woman would also carry all her belongings in a special trunk, called a cassoni, that would be presented to her husband. Women were treated as mere decorations in public; they were often seen as no more than a prize around a man’s arm in order to increase his social standing among his peers.
Contributing to the Renaissance view of the woman as a prize to be claimed, on the day of her wedding, she was often paraded about town by her husband. If a woman did not marry, she would often be sent to a convent to become a nun, living her life in chaste service to God.
Over the course of her marriage, a woman of the Renaissance period would bear between five to ten children. After childbirth, there would be a “laying in”– the equivalent to a modern-day baby shower. The average Renaissance woman would need all the gifts she could get, for the work of caring for and raising the children was left solely to her.
In addition to the duties of raising a family, women in the Renaissance were also responsible for making and repairing most of the family’s clothes from scratch, by hand. They would also do all the cooking and preparation of meals for the entire family. Most women would never hold any occupation other than “housewife”.
Some women were permitted to work small jobs as leather workers, fabric merchants, or as assistants to bakers. In rare cases, the wife of a merchant would take over her husband’s position and duties after he died. This didn’t put the woman on equal footing, however; women were paid much less than a man doing the same type of job. Even a Renaissance merchant woman was expected to remain silent unless spoken to, avoid all discussions of religion or politics, and to attend to the duties of their husbands’ business and household.
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Why were women of the Renaissance period treated this way? Prominent theologians of the time pointed to the story in the Bible of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman created by God. According to the story, Eve was responsible for tempting Adam to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, an act that had been forbidden by God Himself. When Adam succumbed to Eve’s temptation, clergy said, he tainted humankind forever after with the stain of “Original Sin”. Thus, all women were seen as weak and foolish. This characterization lead most men of the time to regard women as mysterious at best, and untrustworthy at worst.