Humanism was popular in Europe from 1300-1600, often called the renaissance. During this time, some female writers began to be heard, but their voices were often as shouts in the wilderness, partly because humanism was not mainstream, but mostly because of their gender. It is very difficult to research this topic because there has not been that much interest until very recently. Searches in several databases bring up little information, and most of it was written by men. However, there were some writers then who did have an impact.
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The word humanism means stressing the importance of human beings. The humanist movement began in Italy and gave shape to the Renaissance, the new age of interest in the arts, education, and the classics of ancient Greece and Rome. It stressed the humanities, which included grammar, rhetoric (the art of persuasive argument), poetry, history, and moral philosophy, and these were studied in order to make the Christian well-rounded and virtuous.
Petrarch, the Italian poet, is credited with the development of humanism as he tried to relate scripture to the human condition and understand it in terms of the spirituality of humans, especially depending upon the ancient works in Greek and Latin. It eventually evolved to include the well-rounded scholar. There were a great number of female scholars at the time since women of means had little else to do than study or perfect their arts. However, breaking into a public publication or being recognized at that time for great literary work was still quite questionable.
Most female writers of the time wrote verse or poetry. Some wrote on lighter subjects, such as children’s literature and subjects of interest largely to females. Smarr’s book covers the writers of dialogue, which was a new way to break into print, “The argument of Smarr’s book – that the dialogue provided Renaissance women with a variety of means and strategies for entering into public speech – seems, in retrospect, almost inevitable. If the burgeoning number of dialogues produced in the period (as Thomas Greene argued many years ago of Castiglione’s Cortegiano) attests to the open-ended character of Renaissance culture in contrast to the relative closure of the medieval, certainly the genre might be expected to appeal to women hoping to stage their own interventions in the monologic masculine discourses surrounding them” (Phillippy).
In fact, in order to find humanist women writers of the renaissance, one has to do very complicated literature searches using a whole set of criteria with which to sift through and sort out: women writers of the middle ages who wrote from a humanist point of view. Considering that women writers are still in the minority in this enlightened age, how very much fewer they were in the new age of art and science, which was male-dominated. So I searched in various veins and found that there were even Huguenot female humanist writers.
“Huguenot women writers, few though they may have been, nevertheless had an influence. They described a new relationship with the Word. Through their individual manipulation of the Word, Huguenot women writers, in their modest and practical application of Scripture, stepped away – without appearing to – from the Calvinist ideal of the plain style, preparing the sort of play with language that typifies the plasticity of the salonnard’s self-expression in the seventeenth century. Laboring within constraints to give birth to herself, the Huguenot woman writer engendered a genealogy of discussion and dialogue, interaction rather than intimidation, that found a paradoxical tributary in the relaxed, libertine climate of the salons” (Randall).
It is not surprising that Huguenot women writers would have been humanists, considering their solid grounding in scripture. What is surprising is that there were quite a few Heugenot women writers.
In research, it was found that many female writers were printed by either a very few sympathetic printers/ publishers who believed in them, or by female publishers who had taken overpresses they inherited from husbands or fathers. The general did not reveal their gender on the letterhead, so they could depend that many would not notice.
“The majority of women printers, however, did not sign their names to the works they produced, preferring to designate themselves simply as the heirs of the master printer. Such a practice is by no means confined to female heirs; sons also frequently signed their works in this way.”(Parker)
During the research I discovered many names I have never heard of before:
- “King, Margaret L. “Petrarch, the Self-Conscious Self, and the First Women Humanists.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, vol. 35, no. 3 (2005), 537-58.
- Thomson, Melissa (2005). Women of the Renaissance. Lucent Books. San Diego.
- Cereta, Laura, 1469-1499. Collected Letters of a Renaissance Feminist. Transcribed, Translated and Edited by Diana Robin (1997). University of Chicago Press. Chicago, Ill.
- Hale, J.R. (1993-1995). The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance. Simon and Shuster. New York.
- Elton, G. R. (1963). Renaissance and Reformation, 1300-1648.
- Letts, Rosa Maria (1981). The Renaissance. Cambridge University Press. New York.
- Witt, Ronald G. “The Humanist Movement.” In Handbook of European History, 1400-1600, edited by Thomas A. Brady Jr., Heiko A. Oberman, and James D. Tracy, 93-125. Leiden: Brill, 1995.”
While most of the writers I have discovered thusly are quite obscure in the mainstream, this points out just how far we have yet to go. However, their impact on literature in the middle ages was not insignificant, as attested to by the growing list of studies of their works. Further, since academic writing of the time did not necessarily cite sources properly, it is known that women humanist writers could easily have been quoted elsewhere in works by male authors.
- Benson, Pamela Joseph. 1992. The Invention of the Renaissance Woman: The Challenge of Female Independence in the Literature and Thought of Italy and England. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.
- Gold, Barbara K., Paul Allen Miller, and Charles Platter, eds. 1997. Sex and Gender in Medieval and Renaissance Texts: The Latin Tradition /. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
- Parker, Deborah. 1996. Women in the Book Trade in Italy, 1475-1620. Renaissance Quarterly 49, no. 3: 509+.
- Phillippy, Patricia. 2006. Joining the Conversation: Dialogues by Renaissance Women. Renaissance Quarterly 59, no. 1: 142+.
- Randall, Catharine. 1997. Shouting Down Abraham: How Sixteenth Century Huguenot Women Found Their Voice. Renaissance Quarterly 50, no. 2: 411+.