Renaissance Venice Italy Cloister Nuns “Virgins of Venice” Lesbian Letters Diary For Sale
Renaissance Venice Italy Cloister Nuns “Virgins of Venice” Lesbian Letters Diary:
Virgins of Venice: Broken Vows and Cloistered Lives in the Renaissance Convent by Mary Laven.
DESCRIPTION: Hardcover with Dust Jacket: 282 pages. Publisher: Viking; (2003). Dimensions: 8¾ x 5½ x 1¼ inches; 1 pound. Venice in the late Renaissance was a city of fabulous wealth, reckless creativity, and growing social unrest as its maritime empire crumbled. It was also a city of walls and secrets, ghettos and cloisters -- including fifty convents housing three thousand nuns, many of them refined, upper-class women who had been immured against their will. In this utterly fascinating book. Cambridge historian Mary Laven uncovers the long-hidden stories of the "Virgins of Venice" and the secret, and often surprising, lives they led.
Sifting through records kept during the Counter-Reformation, Laven has created a detailed and dramatic tapestry of resourceful, determined, often passionate women who managed to lead fulfilling lives despite their virtual imprisonment. Far from being precincts of piety and silence, the convents of Venice were hotbeds of political scheming, colorful pageantry, gorgeous decoration, and illicit love affairs.
One nun was so determined to sleep with her lover that she painstakingly chipped a hole in a stone wall so he could climb through under cover of night. Another expressed her individuality through obsessive gift giving while keeping records of the dangerous flirtations going on around her. Still others exercised considerable clandestine power in the dangerous game of Venetian politics.
Rich in intrigue and gossip, eye opening in its historic revelations, and written with drama and compassion. “Virgins of Venice” brings to life a culturally vibrant period in Venice and the hidden residents who dwelled behind its walls.
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REVIEW: Ancient and isolated, the twenty Orthodox monasteries on the Greek peninsula of Mount Athos do not make the headlines often, but the current standoff between the conservative monks of Esphigmenou (motto: "Orthodoxy or Death") and other orders shines a light on this enclave, famous for its total exclusion of females (including livestock) and its extreme notion of solitude.
Some hermits still live for decades in caves with only the skulls of their predecessors for company. Graham Speake's history Mount Athos suggests that the monks have always been a querulous bunch. As early as 972 A.D., the number of monks allowed to attend annual meetings was limited to "avoid the disorders and disputes which have occurred very frequently at these gatherings”.
Few people nowadays are attracted to the cloistered life, but in some periods of history joining sacred orders was almost the norm. In Renaissance Europe, the high cost of marriage in aristocratic families sometimes sent the majority of a family's daughters to convents. In “A Convent Tale”, P. Renée Baernstein focused on the life of the sixteenth-century Milanese noblewoman Agata Sfondrati. Such was the dearth of marriage opportunities that Agata's sister Anna was the only woman in three generations of the Sfondrati to get married.
Unsurprisingly, many women felt trapped by this life. Mary Laven's “Virgins of Venice” looks at the many ways in which this frustration was vented; amateur dramatics, hospitality to outside women, and love affairs. A nun who, in 1614, knocked a hole in a wall to admit her lover pointed out that she had been at the convent since she was six or seven and that, when she took her vows. "I spoke with my mouth, and not with my heart." Author Mary Laven is Lecturer at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Jesus College.
REVIEW: This engrossing book unveils a world of convent communities far richer and more complicated than the nuns' vows of poverty, chastity and obedience would seem to allow, wherein women led "lives caught between renunciation and self-indulgence, monotony and flashes of high color”. The author explains how, in the 16th century, Venice's 50-some convents were seen as "places of vice and indiscipline", and a "spiritual liability" that called for visits by church and state authorities who would chart infractions and demand reforms.
Using visitation reports, trial records, personal letters and diaries, Cambridge historian Laven weaves a fascinating social history of these women's hidden existence; lives that included "gossip-mongering", befriending prostitutes, cross-dressing, sharing beds with one another, writing love letters to priests and even cutting holes in convent walls to allow their lovers in. The problem, Laven says, was that Venetian convents served as "dumping grounds for unmarried noblewomen," many of whom had no calling to the religious life.
Stripped of wealth and position and cut off from the outside world, these young women longed, more than anything, for communication, and taking lovers, sometimes, was simply the best way to get it. Laven writes with powerful empathy for the nuns, neither glorifying them nor reducing them to helpless victims. And in asserting that nuns' struggles were ultimately to define themselves as individuals against the strictures of their community, Laven makes a compelling feminist argument without employing any overblown feminist rhetoric.
REVIEW: Laven (Professor of History, University of Cambridge) describes the politics, religious practice, and physical realities of the involuntary enclosure in convents experienced by a large percentage of the upper-class girls of Renaissance Venice. The shifting circumstances of the nuns, who lived marginally normal lives until stricter reforms eliminated their contact with the outside world, stories of the lives and struggles of individual nuns, and the physical features of the convents are among the topics described, based on extensive research of convent and other archives. A fascinating glimpse into the life which once existed behind cloistered convent walls, this book is a tremendous achievement. Laven has released the voices of the nuns of renaissance Venice.
REVIEW: Virtually impossible to put down, in this beautifully written book Mary Laven takes us behind the closed doors of the convents of Late Renaissance Venice. She exposes the predicament of women who were incarcerated to satisfy the social and religious pressures of the time, and yet managed to create emotional and even sexual lives for themselves. Laven brilliantly evokes the atmosphere and drama of the period, while making a major contribution to the understanding of the place of women in early modern Europe.
REVIEW: Mary Laven has provided us with a fascinating, thought-provoking glimpse into the lives and thoughts of these sisters of Venice so long ago, and we find them our own sisters in many ways. A very special book that shines light into a secret corner of the human heart and the ability to adapt to boundaries, and enlightens us all. As in so many other aspects, Venice was unique in its attitude toward nuns and convents, having more than anywhere else in Europe. Here at last is the most interesting and informative book I have ever read on the subject.
REVIEW: Mary Laven deftly lifts the veil on the nuns of Renaissance Venice, revealing their world in the minutest and most fascinating detail. A triumphant combination of scholarship and storytelling, Laven provides readers with astonishingly fresh, immediate insights into the fascinating reality of day-to-day convent existence. It’s an utterly engrossing account, a work of analytic pathos and compassion. It’s scholarly and diligent, but with frequent moments of fun.
REVIEW: An Important Study of Convent Life! Laven's scholarly study (originally her doctoral thesis) is an eminently readable account of convent life in early Renaissance Venice. She describes a fascinating slice of 16th century life. What is remarkable is that the 'slice' is actually quite large. As Laven relates, noble women (most professed nuns were noble) had few options. Most families concentrated their financial resources in a dowry for only one daughter and the rest commonly went to the convent. For many of these women life in a nunnery was involuntary.
As part of the Church's defensive reaction in the Counter-Reformation, Venetian convents became much more strictly enclosed by the strictures of the Council of Trent. The enclosure laws greatly benefited Laven's work because most of her material comes directly from court records. These sources are the book's greatest strength. The records provide insight into the behavior of real people, individuals with names and families, in and around the convents.
Given the lack of other available resources, the reliance on court records somewhat limits our view as we mostly only read about those situations that made it to court. Fortunately for us, convent life was quite strictly regulated, yet nuns were also determined to have dealings with the outside world, many of them non-sexual, so Laven has access to many records. It makes for a very interesting study. The Church was so central to Medieval and Renaissance life that anyone who wants to understand those periods must understand the role of religion and the Church as an institution. Laven's book is highly instructive and highly recommended.
REVIEW: If we could travel back in time, and our machine landed in 16th century Venice, what would you like to see? Grand palaces, and the people who lived in them? Carnival time in the Piazza of San Marco? Perhaps life on the streets? What about life in a convent? Too dull, you think? Then, you have not read Mary Laven's “Virgins of Venice”, a remarkable journey into the lives of the women who lived in the fifty or so convents that existed in Venice at the time.
Convents were not only spiritual houses, but also end stations for noble women who could not be given away in marriage by their families. By using reports of investigations and trials, together with statements that came from the nuns themselves, Laven opens a world of suffocating oppression and enforced chastity, but also a world of determination from the nuns to lead a life as normal as possible. Contact with the outside world might have not been allowed, but the courts were full of incidents where both outsiders and nuns had breached the law. For instance, we learn that Zuana, a "gossip", kept hens for Madonna Suor Gabriela, and that in exchange, Suor Gabriela provided Zuana with wine and other commodities.
This and many other stories make this book impossible to put down, since we feel anger, sadness, despair and sympathy for those women whose lives were condemned from the moment they entered the convent. On the other hand, we can't help but to feel glad that the nuns did everything they could to fight back. From being petty to actually engaging in sexual acts, these nuns will forever be a remainder that no matter time and place, human beings will do the impossible to lead dignified lives. Bravo, Leven!
REVIEW: In the wall of the Arsenal in Venice is an arch of the demolished convent Santa Maria delle Vergini. The convent had been one of the grandest of thirty-odd Venetian convents. There is a plaque below the arch that reads, "Hope and love keep us in this pleasant prison”. Convents were indeed like prisons, in many ways, and many of the inhabitants were reluctant prisoners, rather than volunteers for God. In an amazing account of convent existence and day-to-day life within, “Virgins of Venice: Broken Vows and Cloistered Lives in the Renaissance Convent”.
Some of the nuns may have been devoted to God, but even they had to be busy with laundry, cooking, and herbal remedies to keep the convent going. They were also not immune from gossip, laughing, friendship, and sexual intrigue. The convents in the 16th and 17th centuries were intended to be islands of sinlessness walled away from the outside world. However Laven shows that sinless or not, the nuns had to participate in a larger society, and inescapably took on that society's characteristics.
Convents were supposed to keep nuns from the outside world and vice versa. There were veiled and grated communion windows where the nuns could line up and receive the host from the priest, without actually entering the church. There were walls to keep nuns from public view, and to keep them from looking out upon the sinful world. For passing things in and out of the convent, there might be a “ruota”, or wheel, a sort of revolving door that would prevent glimpses in and glimpses out.
Convents were vital to the Venetian nobility. If a daughter could not be married, or could not be put on the marriage market with the enormous dowries Venetian law required, the convent was the one place she could go. Most of the nuns had the "forced vocation" of the convent imposed upon them, and others were tricked into it by relatives, some within the convent, who had misrepresented the benefits of such a life.
There was stratification within the convents that mirrored society without. The aristocratic nuns could dress as they were used to, and they kept their family names, indicating a secular identity. Of course there were sexual violations. Boccaccio's tales of convent hanky-panky might have been satire, but he knew that sexuality would show itself. “Virgins of Venice”, despite its lurid subtitle, is certainly not about sensational sex stories. This is a work of serious scholarship, but it is humorous and compassionate.
Laven has drawn from contemporary sources, including the reports of inspections of the state magistracy that had been set up "to enforce the new laws that aspired to obliterate all contact, from the most innocent and inconspicuous to the flagrantly sexual, between the city's nuns and the outside world." Laven cannot support the feminist view that these enclosed women had resourcefully found a means of self-expression within their society. They were prisoners, who although they might be making the best of a bad situation, were under life sentences.
REVIEW: This is not a book for those looking for freak stories about nuns but a serious account of an important part of the population of Venice in the 16th-17th centuries. Having grown up in a Mediterranean catholic country I have found quite normal things that were something shocking to the author but I've really been shocked by things like that the Trent Council ordered all the nuns to be enclosed! I must have been slept when they mentioned that in religion and history lessons!
I was also shocked by the use the aristocratic elite of Venice made of the convents as nothing more than a dumping site for their daughters. However I found normal that this did not lead to a "convent revolution" as I'm quite aware of the "class feeling" and family pride of these involuntary. Those sentiments precluded any “revolution”, as they were and remain normal in Western Mediterranean countries. I have found this book very interesting for all those interested in a somewhat forgotten sector of the Mediterranean society of Renaissance and early modern Europe.
Daily Life in Renaissance Europe: How does one define daily life in any period of the past? Doing so involves looking at a wide variety of factors. How did people dress, and what did they eat? What did they do for fun? Did the rich and the poor do the same things? To understand daily life we must look at these issues along with politics, warfare, art, economics, religion, and the effects of illness and disease on families and social groups. Any examination of the different areas of Renaissance Europe will by necessity include the customs of various peoples during the early and late Renaissance. It will also include an examination of the social and economic factors that affected people's everyday lives.
Renaissance Europe was not a single unified society with the same traditions throughout the land. Each region had distinct languages, ethnic makeups, and geographic factors that shaped everyday life. Broadly, Mediterranean societies experienced hot, dry summers and cool, rainy winters. Northern European countries experienced mild, temperate summers and long, cold winters. The Mediterranean region had arid (dry) or semiarid mountain ranges. Northern Europe was characterized by broad expanses of fertile plains and forest. The Mediterranean Sea connected the South with more ancient cultures and peoples of northern Africa and Asia. Consequently cities, long-distance shipping, and trade were features of life in Mediterranean Europe much more so than in Northern Europe.
The exceptions were the Hanseatic cities. These cities belonged to a trade network called the Hanseatic League. The league was composed of northern Germany and the cosmopolitan industrial cities of the “Low Countries”. The “Low Countries” referred to Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Everywhere else Europe's population was thinly spread throughout rural areas. In these regions peasants and nobles sometimes rubbed shoulders with sheepherders on the plains. This would occur each year when the sheepherders brought their flocks down from the high pastures in the fall and looked for work in the winter.
Europeans were often on the move. They were going to market, traveling to political centers to pay taxes, or embarking on religious pilgrimages. The Mediterranean populations traveled from one port city to another on ships. Over land they traveled by foot or uncomfortably on the back of a donkey. Northern Europeans traveled by foot, though as time elapsed, increasingly by boat on canals and rivers. Hosting travelers were numerous inns, taverns, and religious establishments. Gender and class also shaped daily life. Upper-class women were confined to the home or the court. When they went to market they were either escorted or they traveled in groups. The same was true when they traveled to attend church or special civic or religious events. Middle-class and poor women spent much time working.
Middle-class women were artisans or shopkeepers. Women of lower economic strata worked in the fields if they were peasants or in households if they were servants. Women of the elite classes supervised a domestic staff and oversaw the education of their children. Noblemen spent their time at court, at war, or managing their country estates. In urban areas some men engaged in business activity. This was particularly true in Italy. Political life was open to a select few. However opportunities for nobles to have a meaningful impact on politics declined as princes and kings gained more and more power.
In smaller urban areas nobles of middle rank directed local politics. Sometimes they ruled independently if they had not yet been made part of the political structure of a regional state. But more often than not their authority was subordinate to the authority of capitals of territorial states. Whatever the setting political life was almost entirely the domain of upper-class men. Rural males participated in village affairs through parish or village councils. These in turns were directed by priests or local lords.
In Renaissance Europe the economic cycle that lasted from 1450 until 1550 began and ended in crisis. At the earlier stages of the cycle Europe was recovering from population losses and the consequent economic depression that followed the calamitous and widespread disease epidemic which came to be known as the "Black Death”. As population levels began to recover people became more prosperous. Workers' wages bought more and better food. From this time until 1550 the wages of an average worker were enough to provide good food and a warm, clean home for the family. Then prices began to rise rapidly. By 1600 cumulative price increases had reached 200 to 300 percent above what they had been fifty years earlier.
To some extent this rise in prices which we call “inflation” was due to large amounts of gold coming in from European colonies in the Americas. The severity of inflation varied from region to region. Likewise the ability of workers to live on their wages varied from region to region as well. Rural areas during this economic cycle had witnessed an expansion of a money economy. That is to mean an economy that operates on cash as the medium of exchange, not credit or bartered goods. Initially this cash economy created a problem for both lords and peasants. That problem was simply how to convert wealth in land and goods into increasingly necessary cash.
The noble class solved this problem by simply forcing peasants to pay cash instead. Formerly peasants had “worked off” their feudal obligations to a manor’s lord. Peasants were first required to donate labor to work the lord’s land. Then second they were required to give their lord a percentage of crops and other products the peasants produced on the land they were allotted. In the new cash economy peasants instead had to find some means of getting cash to pay the lord. Some would find extra jobs and work for wages. Others would produce surplus goods such as growing extra food or making pottery. They would then sell these goods at the local market. Some were forced to become criminals and began smuggling goods to raise the extra money. In the meantime the gap between rich and poor was widening. The upper and merchant classes took advantage of the money economy to establish thriving banks and businesses. These enterprises formed the basis of modern capitalism characterized by the private or corporate ownership of goods.
Kinship loomed large in the life of the Renaissance. It was referred to by a variety of terms. Among these terms were lineage, house, race, blood, and family. Kinship was defined by the incest prohibitions of the Roman Catholic Church. These were codified into laws against having sexual relations with family members. Kinship comprised everyone with a common ancestry going back four generations. In other words the concept of “kinship” extended out to third cousins. Also included were the spouses of these relatives and some connected by god parentage. A godparent is of course one who sponsors a child's baptism. Some secular or non-religious laws gave inheritance rights to descendants of even more remote common ancestors.
In reality however kinship was commonly viewed more narrowly. The common concept of “kinship” was limited to those individuals whose names were known and who saw one another from time to time. The idea of kinship also varied according to social position and wealth. The standard way of reckoning descent was through fathers. Mothers were invisible in most genealogies, i.e., documentation tracing generations of families. As a member of a family line an individual belonged to a group of agnates, or people related by blood through male parents. However maternal blood relatives were also important. Tracing ancestry through both parents was very much in practice at the time, in spite of the greater emphasis on paternal lines.
Relatives with no connection by blood could also be important. The church included both affinity and consanguinity in its definition of kin. Affinity was kinship by marriage. Consanguinity was kinship of individuals of the same blood or origin. Advantageous in-law kinships were the prime objective of many marriages. Kinship was different for the nobility than for the majority of people. Ordinary people did not have the resources to know a multiplicity of different relations. The elite on the other hand could claim knowledge of even remote ancestors. The largest, most extended families were those in the upper levels of society. The Renaissance was an era of dynasties, defined as families who hold power for many generations. These dynasties were not only royal dynasties, but noble, patrician or aristocratic, and mercantile or merchant dynasties as well.
Names of dynasties were as least as important as names of individuals. In fact the chief political players in Renaissance Europe were not individuals but families. Among the most powerful families of Renaissance Europe were the Colonnas and Orsinis of Rome, Italy; the Medicis and Strozzis of Florence, Italy; the extended Contarini family of Venice, Italy; the Fuggers of Augsburg, Bavaria; the House of Habsburg in Austria and Spain; the House of Tudor in England; and the House of Valois of France. First among the symbols of powerful families was the surname, i.e., the last or family name. The use of a surname was fairly new in the early 15th century. It was at first associated with important families who took the names of important ancestors or the names of territories they controlled. More visible symbols were coats of arms, i.e., emblems with family symbols.
These coats of arms decorated houses, furniture, the clothing of servants, and a variety of other items. The public works of a pope as supreme head of the Roman Catholic Church were even marked with the arms of his family. Houses were family symbols too. The size and appearance of a house proclaimed power and wealth. Inheritance was the key to family power in modest families and well-to-do families alike. Property was passed down through a succession of individuals who were expected to preserve and enhance what they received. There was hardly any aspect of an individual's life that was not affected by kinship. This was especially true for someone in an important family. Nobles and patricians were acutely aware of their ancestors.
Nobles constructed genealogies that were sometimes partly fictional. They might perhaps name a hero from antiquity as the originator of the family line. Preserving the memory of ancestors became important to Christian families. Elaborate funeral ceremonies, monuments, and family chapels have preserved the names of some great families into the present day. Every member of a great family shared in the family's reputation. However, it is difficult to know if the same was true of lower-class individuals. Great families overshadowed other ones. This was especially true in matters of state. Sometimes these great families seemed to be the only families, or at least completely dominant, in a particular region.
The loss of family honor was a collective burden. An individual convicted of a serious crime not only shamed his kin. It might also cause them to lose for generations the legal privileges they enjoyed as members of the nobility. Women had a special responsibility for maintaining the honor of their husbands' families by being above reproach sexually. Women were expected to be virgins upon marriage and to remain true to their husbands. All kinsmen got involved in rivalries with other families. Feuds and long-held grudges were a feature of Renaissance culture.
Individual desires were never as important as the needs of the family. Marriage and career choices were based on what was good for the family. Family members in positions of power had an obligation to help their kin. Wealthier kinsmen were expected to come to the rescue of family members. Even in the lowest classes the first source of help for paupers was kin. The laws in England obligated close relatives such as grandparents, aunts or uncles to support kin. Members of great families assumed they had a right to approach distant relatives for help. The system of family obligations and family power can be summed up in the word "nepotism". The term is defined as the practice of favoring one's family members over others.
Far from being thought of as corrupt, nepotism of favoritism toward one's family was admired. The most famous examples are found in the Renaissance papacy, the office of the pope. In the course of what was usually a short reign a pope would act quickly to advance the careers and status of his relatives. In light of church-mandated celibacy, this would most often be in favor of the immediate family of a sister. The pope would award honorary titles, give away property, and arrange powerful marriages. The pope would also elevate nephews to the position of cardinal, that being an official office ranking directly below the pope.
Popes did on a grand scale what other members of the nobility did if they had the opportunity. Royal ladies-in-waiting, i.e. court attendants to queens, for example, “took care” of husbands, brothers, and children. Whenever possible the goal was to put a relative in a position where the family would benefit from future favors. Most notably an adjunct goal was to put relatives in a position whereby they might acquire something valuable that could be passed on to future generations. During the Renaissance the word most often used to refer to a household was "family". Although the term "family" also had other connotations, it was primarily a synonym for a household.
As it is today by far the most common household was the nuclear-family, or conjugal household. This was composed of one married couple and their children. Another common type of household found among peasants has been termed the "stem-family". This household is based on a system of inheritance in which property passed to a single heir. The heir to family property remained in the household with the parents after he or she married. Thus this formed an extended family household that might produce a third household generation. Less common was a household which is referred to as the "joint-family" household. It was based on a married couple and their sons. All of the sons together with their spouse and offspring remained in the household after they married.
An important development during the Renaissance was the concept of private life. This notion involved a general change in mental outlook that came from the humanists' emphasis on individualism. During the Middle Ages the public and private spheres were inseparable and intertwined. The needs of the individual were never so important as the needs for the community or group. The situation changed in the 15th century, and even earlier in Italy. With the development of commerce, cities, and wealth, some people then had the means and the desire to distinguish themselves from others. In addition, monarchs and princes who busied themselves by accumulating wealth and political power created a state in which individuals defined themselves by what they owned. Changes in religious life also affected society. Individuals began to look inward and focus on communion with God.
Also important influences on this development were the changes in the role of the family. In some regions of Renaissance Europe from as early as the 17th century the home became a place where one could hide from the gossip and judgment of the public. The conjugal household was generally the smallest in size. Joint-family households sometimes were quite large. For example a family in early 15th-century Tuscany included 47 members, all related by blood or marriage. This was however an unusually large household. The chief determination of family size was wealth. Regardless of how a “household” was structured, there were differences between the majority of less-privileged households and the households of the economically and socially privileged.
Most households averaged five or six members. Some had one or two members, but households of moderate means might reach nine or ten. Elite households were large even if they were conjugal in structure, because parents and children were not the only inhabitants. Renaissance households almost always included people who had no kinship ties with each other. These were usually servants. A peasant household might at most have two or three servants. However the household of a lord might have forty servants, even more. Elite households expanded in the 15th and 16th centuries and slowly shrank after that. However even then they still remained huge in comparison to what was typical of households of more modest means.
Some members of households were hard to categorize, even for contemporaries. Orphans who lived with aunts and uncles were sometimes considered servants. Elderly relatives might be in a similar position. Stepmothers, half siblings, and children born out of wedlock further complicated household structure. Lodgers who paid a fee to live in another family's house further complicated an easy categorization of a household, as they were neither servants nor kin. Regardless of their composition however, households were centers of production. At all social levels most were engaged in agricultural activities. Noble households were organized for the use of land. The land was usually managed by the lords' officers. These were servants of relatively high status.
Peasants called sharecroppers produced for both the lord and themselves. They sold excess goods for cash at the local market when they could. Whether as tenants, sharecroppers, or direct owners, peasants used the labor of their entire household. Everyone participated in the world necessary to sustain themselves. This included children, wives, and servants if they had any. Great households were also the centers of political power. This included the households of kings and princes down to the households of lords of small manors. Various levels of justice were administered by household officers of manorial and territorial lords, including church lords like abbots. The main political function of lesser households was that they constituted units that were ruled.
Heads of households were taxed rather than individuals. The consumption of goods was different from today. Consumption in poorer households could hardly be separated from production, since the production itself sustained the household’s livelihood. By contrast consumption in great households was plentiful. The very size of houses was a way of indicating wealth. Exterior appearance was meant to convey power and importance. Interior decoration was meant to impress, often with reminders of an owner's distinguished ancestry. Large numbers of servants also proclaimed an owner's status. All this was usually displayed when households would receive guests, a frequent occurrence in most wealthy homes.
The quality of housing both urban and rural steadily improved during the Renaissance. Europeans were the best housed and fed among civilizations and cultures on the major continents. Those of the noble class who had not fallen on hard times lived relatively comfortably in wooden or stone castles or manor houses. The movement toward building with stone increased from 1400 on. There was a particularly notable emphasis on remodeling medieval structures in stone. This was particularly true in France. The remodeling would improve the structure to meet architectural standards established in Renaissance Italy. The peasantry lived in houses made of wood or earth with thatched roofs and earthen floors. The major improvements in these dwellings came with the practice of installing tile flooring, which was plentiful and inexpensive.
However in the housing of the peasantry there was little aside from a screen to divide one room from another and/or to separate the human occupants from their farm animals. Fleas and other insects were a constant problem, especially in the summer. Bathrooms and chimneys were unknown until the 17th century. Furnishings within homes differed according to social and economic status. In the homes of lords beds, tables, and chairs were comfortable and elaborate. Metal plates were fashionable in Italy during the 15th century. Ceramic dinnerware was a specialty of the Romagna region. This was pottery baked at a high temperature in a kiln. Among the poor, straw mattresses, chairs or a table fashioned from barrel halves were common. Cooking and eating typically centered on a metal stove, with a cooking pot and a copper drinking cup.
Most Renaissance writings on household management endorsed a power structure in which the master, or household head, was the supreme authority whom all other members were expected to obey. Very large households were supposed to be organized into various levels of authority. Notions about the household affected the way many other institutions were run. A monarchy was supposed to be little different from a well-run household. A major complaint against King Richard II of England (who ruled from 1377 to 1399) was that he did not manage finances like a good housekeeper. Monastic institutions were organized like households. Likewise organized were schools and colleges. This was partly because some of them were schoolmasters' homes, and partly because the model seems to have been inescapable.
Only the elite classes in cities enjoyed style, comfort, and beauty in housing, furnishings, and food. Italy was in the forefront of quality of life among the well-to-do. Towns in northern Europe for example did not change their building materials from wood to stone until the 16th century. The Italians began building with stone in the Middle Ages. They brought the process to a high standard with the construction of Renaissance palaces in the 15th century. Around that time elaborate and beautiful ceramic dinnerware replaced metal plates of the earlier period. The ceramic dinnerware was not only less expensive than metal dinnerware, it improved the taste of food. Table manners first emerged among the Italians. This was coupled with relatively more refined cookery. These more refined dining and food preparation techniques then made their way to France from about 1550 onward.
The urban poor lived less well. This reflected the evidence of the growing gap between the rich and the poor in cities. The urban poor lived in terrible conditions. This is chronicled in inventory records made of their possessions after death. At the time of their demise a typical poor person had a few low-quality eating utensils, a blackened metal cooking pot, frying pans, dripping pans, and a board for kneading bread. Other personal belongings might include a few old clothes, a stool, and a table. Some might perhaps possess a bench that also doubled as a bed together with a few sacks of straw serving for a mattress. Items such as these furnished life in crowded rented rooms. Such rooms were generally dark and dirty and located on the upper floors of buildings. These floors were oftentimes specifically reserved for the poor.
The homeless poor lived in shantytowns, congregations of small, temporary homes. In 1560 Pescara, Italy for example, four hundred people out of a population of two thousand lived in such conditions. In Genoa, Italy, every winter the poor sold themselves as galley slaves. They manned and rowed the oars on large commercial ships known as galleys. In Venice destitute people lived in small boats under the bridges of canals or along waterside quays. In each city the poor lived with fleas, lice, and other pests. Poverty and destitution were visible everywhere.
In Renaissance society, marriage was the foundation of the household and kinship. These households in turn were the foundations of society and the state. In most parts of Europe starting a household and beginning married life were essentially the same thing. Most single people did not create a household for themselves until they were married. Kin were very aware of their connections by blood and by marriage. These connections were viewed as means to extended and strengthen kinship. Marriage alliances between ruling families sealed peace treaties and sometimes created empires.
All religions agreed on the value of marriage to prevent sinful sexual behavior. Marriage was a spiritual and respected institution. In 1439 the Roman Catholic Church officially declared marriage a sacrament, or religious obligation. Even Protestants believed marriage to be a relationship singularly blessed by God. Even Protestant ministers were encouraged to get married. This was despite the fact that Catholic priests could not marry and took vows of chastity. Until the Reformation, the church, not the state, legally defined and oversaw marriage.
Although a fairly large number of people remained single, marriage was considered the normal lot of ordinary people. The unmarried included those who could not afford marriage. They also included those who were social outcasts, perhaps due to a physical or mental handicap or deformity. Also counted along the unmarried were religious celibates who choose not to have sexual relations in order to please God. Marriages tended to be among people of similar social and financial backgrounds, and were usually limited to partners from the local area. In rural villages and urban neighborhoods courtships developed from the contacts of daily life.
Marriage was different for the very wealthy. Young people of higher status were more closely supervised. The marriage pool for them was considerably widened in order to ensure that they were wisely matched. Members of the very highest levels of nobility were parried to partners from other regions or even other countries. For them courtship took place only after a mate had already been pre-selected by parents or other kin. Such arranged marriages could be protested and called off. However in practice but this rarely happened. In lower classes the choice of a mate was sometimes made by young people. However the selection and/or “courtship” was subject to parental approval. These selections were rarely rejected by the parents. However the church often had a say in the approval of a prospective marriage.
For those in the nobility political alliances through marriage was important. However due to the close-knit nature of the nobility there was often the danger of marrying someone close in the bloodline. The Protestant church reduced the number of marriages forofferden by both blood relation and marriage ties. However the Catholic Church retained all of its traditional limitations. However exception and permissions were often granted to couples who were distantly related. Although sexual intimacy before marriage was not condoned, it was not uncommon for lower-class women were pregnant at the time of their weddings. Village youth groups also had some control over marriage choices, and would discourage what they considered to be inappropriate matches.
Marriages that might be objected to were most often those in which there was a wide age difference or in which one of the parties was an outsider. Typically even these marriages would be agreed upon if both parties were serious about marrying. In upper classes the bride was rarely pregnant at the time of marriage, and the rituals of courtship were highly formal. Traditional gifts were exchanged and the man was expected to assume the role of "servant" to the woman, who was his "mistress." These terms were simply part of the formality of courtship and the wedding itself. However after the marriage the man became the master of the household and the woman generally possessed very little power.
Courtship led to betrothal. Betrothal was an important stage in the process of getting married. It only began to lose its central place toward the end of the 17th. It was often a formal ceremony that might be performed in front of a priest at the church door. Betrothal bound the couple in a relationship that could be broken only by mutual consent. The mutual consent to end a betrothal was as public an event as the betrothal itself. The legal difference between a betrothal and a wedding was not easy to understand. Church lawyers wrestled with it for a long time. In most cases, betrothal led directly to marriage after an interval of a month or two. There were some exceptions. For instance betrothals sometimes lasted for years. Occasionally one of the parties in an informal betrothal might go back on his or her word.
However in a formal betrothal one party could refuse to break it at the request of the other. A pregnant woman might insist that she was actually married since she was betrothed to the man with whom she had conceived her unborn child. Perhaps the hardest case was one in which a woman sued a man who she claimed promised to marry her. The courts had to decide if a betrothal had occurred. Such cases were known as "clandestine marriages", and took up much of the time in church courts. In the 16th century after the split between the Catholic and Protestant churches, both churches focused more on the vows exchanged during marriage. However the betrothal remained an important step toward marriage.
The idea of marrying for love was rarely the reason for marriage during the Renaissance. While there were probably romantic couples like Romeo and Juliet marriage was first and foremost a business arrangement. For centuries throughout world cultures marriage was the decision of the family. The decision-maker was usually the father, although the mother would typically have some say. The decision was not that of the individuals getting married. Marriage negotiations between families might extend over weeks or months. Those negotiations were ever more complicated among the higher social classes. The most common concerns discussed during these negotiations included the dowry contributed on the bride's side. Also a key point in the negotiations was how the possessions of the couple would be distributed after death.
The dowry was a financial offering made by the parents of either the bride or the groom. The tradition is almost as old as history itself. The family of the bride would be particularly concerned about her financial support in the event of the husband's death. Most widows whose husbands died would receive a contribution known as a “dower” in England from the husband's side of the family. The details were spelled out in a contract. If the bride and her family did not make specific agreements about such issues and the husband died, the ramifications could be serious. The bride could possibly have to return home to her parents and be supported by her birth family. For her parents this could be an undesirable and economically difficult situation. If the parents were deceased, it could be an equally difficult situation for the widow’s surviving siblings, to whom she might be compelled to turn to for support.
Wedding ceremonies varied widely. Some took place in church. More often they would be at the church door. Some were held in private homes. In much of Italy the "wedding" consisted of so many steps that it is hard to be certain which one actually resulted in a legal marriage. It may have been the appearance before a public notary who recorded what he witnessed. Each region had its own version of the words that were traditionally spoken. In general the couple agreed to be husband and wife. In many versions the bride's father gave his daughter into the keeping of the bridegroom. There were symbols like the ring and gestures like the kiss. One common gesture was the clasping of hands. This gesture was synonymous with a wedding or a betrothal in many locales and had been since ancient Roman times and before.
Until the middle and late 16th century the legal requirements for marriage were a confusing combination of canons or church law, decrees from the church, and local civil laws. Then the church became a legal part of the marriage ceremony. Most Protestant towns and governments adopted ordinances requiring a wedding to take place in a recognized church in the presence of a minister. Similarly the Catholic Church defined a valid marriage as one in which consent was exchanged in front of a priest and other witnesses. It may be that of all the religious changes of the Reformation period, those that most affected ordinary people were in marriage practices.
Many wedding customs and celebrations in Renaissance Europe remained unchanged today. When there was one the signing of the marriage contract preceded or closely followed the exchange of vows. There were processions to or from the church There were communal meals with traditional foods. And there were dances, music, and songs. All of these activities often took place out of doors with many participants. On higher social levels there was a trend toward more private and more restrained weddings. Church authorities were generally in favor of eliminating all pagan or non-religious elements of a wedding. The Church dismissed wedding celebrations as superstition. Protestant authorities in particular attempted to ban noise, music, and dancing. Yet the Roman Catholic Church had long disapproved of weddings that were too private. It also discouraged such aristocratic practices as midnight ceremonies in private chapels.
Class differences in Renaissance Europe with respect to wedding ceremonies and customs continued. However the popular practices that were most offensive to church officials gradually disappeared. A small number of couples eloped, marrying without their parents' knowledge, the spur usually being parental disapproval. Since the Roman Catholic Church never required parental consent an elopement was acceptable in the religious and legal sense. Nevertheless it was often looked down upon in society. Many Protestant ordinances required parental consent. This was particularly so for people under a certain age. No matter how strict regulations became however there were always couples who managed to avoid them.
According to the common view of married life prevailing in Renaissance Europe the husband was superior to the wife. After the period of courtship during in which the male suitor was a servant to the female, the man became the master of the household at marriage. Women had few legal rights. Scholars generally agree however that women were usually treated well and enjoyed a degree of equality with their husbands. A man may have had authority over his wife. But he was also expected to provide for her, protect her, and treat her kindly. He was also burdened with the responsibility to ensure she was taken care of in the event of his death.
In addition individual relationships created different types of marriages. If a man was much older than his wife there tended to be more inequality. This was the case in many upper-class marriages. In the lower classes there was likely to be less of an age gap. Typically the husband and wife had usually both worked as servants before they married. Therefore they had a basis for a relationship. In practice many marriages were economic partnerships. Rural wives in particular did work in the household and upon the land that complemented the work of their husbands. Men frequently depended on their wives' judgment and ability more than they might admit. Some literate upper-class men expressed admiration for their wives. More than one husband confessed to being at a loss in household affairs after their wives' deaths. Husbands' wills also oftentimes gave considerable power to their widows.
Love was not commonly considered a proper basis for marriage. However it was only natural that feelings developed between a woman and a man once they were married. Regardless of the circumstances leading up to a marriage husband and wife thereafter lived together and shared responsibilities. Their mutual relationship often came to include love and affection. Many couples worked together, were active parents, and were also bed-fellows. Sexual pleasure was an important aspect of marriage. However social and religious conventions dictated that it had to be kept within bounds. Husbands and wives were expected to satisfy one another sexually, something called the "conjugal debt." Sometimes cases were brought to ecclesiastical courts by spouses who complained that the debt was not being paid.
During the Renaissance and Reformation period the man was considered the master of the household. A wife was therefore subservient to her husband, and laws and religious customs supported this inequality. No matter how large a dowry a wife had brought into a marriage the husband assumed control of it. Generally speaking wives could not act for themselves either in law or in commerce. However it is important to note that while this was true of Christian marriages, it was not true of Muslim marriages. As found in the Koran under Islamic law women kept their dowries and had a greater level of economic control than their Christian sisters. Of course Islam was not tolerated in most of Europe. This was particularly true after the Crusades of the Middle Ages. And in Spain especially so after the expulsions of Muslims and Jews from Spain in 1492.
Religious writers of the European Renaissance warned that too much sex in a marriage was just as dangerous as adultery. Adultery was of course defined as a married person having a sexual relationship with a person other than his or her spouse. Adultery was considered a serious sin in Renaissance Europe. Both husbands and wives were capable of cheating on their spouses. But the infidelity of a woman was considered the greater of the two evils. Secular and civil laws alike reflected this attitude. The double standard became a strong part of Christian culture at this time. Wives of husbands who cheated were expected to endure the infidelity as long as it was conducted in private. However husbands who allowed themselves to be betrayed by their wives were publicly mocked and scorned. One of the worst social insults was to be called a "cuckold", a pejorative terms describing a man whose wife is unfaithful.
From every historical indication wives were rarely unfaithful. The few who were found guilty were severely punished. The unlikelihood of a woman committing adultery did not prevent male jealousy from being one of the most common themes in Renaissance literature. Most marriages did not end until one of the partners died. Yet marriages rarely lasted long because the death rate was so high. It was not uncommon for men who married in their late twenties to die in their forties. Many women died in childbirth after only a few years of marriage. Some couples separated before death. Divorce was not available as a real option, though some Protestant jurisdictions allowed it. The Catholic Church allowed legal separation ("divortium"). Most Protestant authorities preferred separation to outright divorce. Though of course in the case of divorce remarriage was permitted.
The usual ground for separation was adultery. Few believed that a person who had committed adultery should remarry. Other grounds included abuse. However it was not easy for ordinary people to be granted permanent separations. People in power had more options. This was especially evident when policy seemed to require a new marriage alliance. Under those circumstances a ruler might ask for an annulment. An annulment stated that a legal marriage never existed. An annulment was often granted on a variety of grounds. Among them were lack of consent on the part of one party. Another ground was the lack of freedom to marry in the first place because of blood relations between the parties.
However an annulment for a marriage that had already existed for several years and produced children was always a problem. The most famous annulment of this period was the "divorce" of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, the king and queen of England. When the pope would not grant Henry's request for an annulment, Henry broke away from the Catholic Church and founded the Church of England. The separation between Churches proved permanent. Some marriages of lesser folk were annulled fairly easily. This was typically because the marriage had never been “consummated”, i.e., the couple had not had sexual relations. However by and large people tended to stay in unhappy marriages. Nonetheless some took the most direct route to divorce, desertion.
It was usually men who deserted. A wife was left in the position of being one who had lost a husband but was still married and unable to remarry. The lack of communication among different regions made it possible for the husband to go elsewhere and re-marry without his wife ever finding out. Sometimes however it was indeed discovered that one of the parties was married to two people. Under those circumstances the later marriage was annulled and the offending party was severely punished. The normal way of looking at marriage was that it was a union of young people who had never been married before. Yet many people were married for the second or third time because of death in previous marriages.
Estimates based on historical records indicate that perhaps 20 percent of the population had been married more than once. A man whose wife has died, i.e., a “widower”, was likely to marry again after a fairly short interval. A woman whose husband has died, i.e., a “widow”, was somewhat less likely to re-marry. However the likelihood of remarriage or not depended to a large extent upon age and circumstances. Families were often eager to use young widows to form desirable new alliances. On the other hand many more mature widows clung to autonomy they had never enjoyed before in their parent-dependent or married lives. Second marriages generally had much less festivity surrounding them. In fact the actual wedding ceremonies even eliminated certain solemn sayings. Second marriages were often the source of social mocking as well, especially in France.
Birth and infancy were obviously common to all in the Renaissance. However very little firsthand information is available to historians. Women simply did not write about the subject and men were seldom witnesses. Previously untapped sources such as church records and burials have recently yielded some valuable information about the experiences of ordinary people. What is clear is that birth and infancy were filled with danger, especially for the child. The most important attendant at a birth was the midwife. The midwife assisted in the delivery of a baby.
Midwives were typically of a social rank not far removed from that of the mother and were generally older woman who had already given birth to several children of their own. Their skills were greatly respected, even by physicians. An apprentice midwife was trained by a practicing midwife. This was not materially different than the male-oriented process whereby masters trained apprentices, i.e., young men who learned a trade from a craftsman. The more experienced midwife passed along her knowledge to the midwife “trainee”. This did not prevent midwives from often being the target of men's suspicions about secret activities involving women. They were sometimes feared as witches who might give the soul of the child to the devil before the child could be baptized. Baptism of course involved the initiation into the Christian religion by being anointed with water by a priest.
The basic techniques of midwives seem to have worked well in most births. The woman in labor was encouraged to sit up and bear down to ease the passage of the baby through the birth canal. This was often achieved using a birthing chair. Some problem births were handled effectively. Midwives knew how to turn infants who were incorrectly positioned. Complications that could be dealt with only by using instruments required the intervention of a surgeon. Unfortunately this usually meant the child would not survive. If the birth canal was blocked a surgeon used hooks and knives to remove the infant in pieces. Cesarean sections were rare, involving the removal of a child from the womb by making an incision in the mother's abdomen. These were only performed if the mother died and there was a chance of saving the infant.
Women gave birth in the company of many women. It was an occasion for the gathering of relatives and neighbors. Their attendance was both only to give help and comfort but was also a social event. This custom went across geography and class. Even medical men were generally excluded from the birthing process. Thus their knowledge of childbirth was mainly drawn from books rather than observation. Even though men were generally forofferden from taking part in birthing, male painters frequently depicted birth scenes. Typically the painting would be part of a cycle pertaining to the lives of saints. A cycle or series of paintings would cover the birth, life, miracles, and death of a holy figure.
These paintings cannot be necessarily considered entirely accurate. However they do portray the presence of many women attending the birthing. While men did not attend the actual birthing, many physicians attempted to improve the safety of the process. The first medical work on childbirth written since antiquity was a manual for pregnant women and midwives. It was written by the German physician Eucharius Rosslin and first published in 1513. It was printed in England three decades later as “The Burth of Mankynde”. The work was translated into other languages and republished many times until the end of the 17th century. Rosslin's objective was to combine medical knowledge taken from classical antiquity together with what he was able to deduce to midwives' methods. His goal was to improve the childbirth process, not replace midwives.
The emergence of male midwives and/or obstetricians came much later in time. The danger of death in childbirth for the mother was great. Nonetheless most women survived and gave birth many times. Nevertheless many writers, mostly male, expressed a fear of childbirth. They spoke of illness, pangs, torment, even "pains of hell" and "snares of Death." The main cause of childbed death was probably infection. This was usually a consequence of a hand or an instrument being inserted into the birth canal. For example a midwife might attempt to remove a placenta that had not been expelled. The placenta is an organ that connects the fetus to the mother's uterus. This kind of contact probably caused most cases of postpartum illness and death. In such cases a woman who had a seemingly normal delivery could develop a prolonged fever. Death would generally follow within a month.
The normal food for newborns was human milk. Most mothers breast-fed their babies. This was particularly true of the lower socio-economic classes. A few lower-class babies could not be nursed by their Mothers. Perhaps their mothers had either died or were ill. Some infants were then fed animals' milk or wheat . What gruel was a liquid substance made of wheat grain and water or milk. However breast-feeding by the mother had the enthusiastic approval of respected authorities. The medical profession recommended it. The clergy was strongly in favor of it. Amongst many others the 15th century Italian theologian Saint Bernadino of Siena preached against women who neglected their breast-feeding duty. He condemnation presumed this neglect was in favor of indulging in sinful behavior, such as vanity and sensuality.
These were common themes in many sermons of the time. The image of the nursing Madonna became a central theme of Renaissance art. These were depictions of the “Virgin” Mary, suckling Jesus of Nazareth. In spite of the overwhelming approval of maternal nursing, many mothers of the upper socio-economic classes hired wet nurses to breast-feed their babies. Wet-nursing was a thriving business and in fact may be the best-documented part of infancy in the Renaissance. The typical wet nurse was a married peasant woman whose own infant had died. If her child was not dead she might decide to suckle it along with an additional infant. However such an arrangement was a highly unlikely and undesirable situation.
Wet nurses usually stayed in their own homes. Consequently situations frequently arose where an infant was sent to live in a strange house with his or her wet nurse. Of course that house was more often than not much more modest than that of his or her parents. A few exceptionally wealthy families kept at least some of their infants at home with a wet nurse living with the family. This arrangement would most often be for male offspring, not female. In either event this arrangement assured the infant would get the nurse's undivided attention. Presumably then the infant would be better rested and well nourished.
Renaissance society expressed mixed feelings toward wet-nursing. Writers who recommended that mothers nurse their own babies also offered advice on how to select wet nurses. The reasons for using wet nurses were fairly complex. Christian moralists thought wet nurses could prevent marital infidelity on the part of the husband. The husband having sexual relations with someone other than his wife was a real risk. This is because it was widely believed in Renaissance Europe that nursing mothers were not supposed to be sexually active. The prospect of uninterrupted sexual relations as an indirect benefit of employing a wet nurse was appealing to couples. However naturally this also meant that wives would become pregnant more often.
Though rarely openly voiced, there seems to have been a feeling that a nursing woman was reduced to subhuman status. While breast-feeding may have been acceptable for common women it was not appropriate for women of higher status. Of course women of lower socio-economic classes could not afford wet nurses anyway. Whether these ideas were consciously widely or even universally held by all people in the privileged classes is not known. But historical records make it abundantly clear that they routinely avoided having to deal with such issues.
Many upper-class women had mixed feelings about hiring a wet nurse. The practice of employing a wet nurse seemed to stand in stark contrast to the artistic images showing the Virgin Mary breast-feeding the baby Jesus. There were other sources of ambivalence as well. Milk was thought to carry with it character and personality traits. So it followed that a baby’s character and personality was formed as much by breast milk as by the environment of the womb. The 16th century Italian artist Michelangelo joked that he became a sculptor because his wet nurse was a stonecutter's wife. It was of course assumed by those of higher social class that a baby could take on undesirable characteristics from a peasant nurse.
The business of wet-nursing operated in much the same way throughout Western Europe. The father chose the nurse and made a contract with her husband, who received regular payments. Some cities had nurses' registries, where wet nurses would register as a service provider. The registries could be either privately run or under government control. The best-known registry was founded in Paris before 1350. Like a careful father a registry was supposed to check that wet nurses were of good moral character and had pleasant dispositions. Their milk was tested and judged as to thickness, color, and taste. One function of registries was to provide wet nurses for foundlings, i.e., abandoned babies and orphans in the care of religious institutions or municipalities.
Life was precarious for newborns. The infant death rate remained more or less constant throughout the Renaissance. Between 20 and 40 percent of all babies died before their first birthday. If they managed to achieve their first birthday, they still had only a 50 percent chance of surviving past the age of ten. These figures applied to all classes. The main reason for this widespread tragedy was simply due to the fact that infants had difficulty fighting off illness. In addition infants' digestive and respiratory systems are less able to withstand environmental hazards such as extremes of weather and impure water. Poverty added more dangers, such as malnourished nursing mothers.
Poor orphans were exposed to the worst hazards in the crowded houses of overworked, inattentive wet nurses. Even the better conditions of the rich could not prevent the overwhelming dangers of infant diseases. How infants were treated is difficult to determine. Some experts believe that the high mortality rate was due to parents investing little or no emotion into their children. Others claim that it is difficult to know how specific parents felt as the historical record gives little indication of the personal feelings of grieving parents. Many children were certainly showered with love and attention. There’s no doubt that parents were overcome with grief in the event of death. What is left out of history is how the mother felt. This is due to the dearth of first-hand accounts of women's lives.
People of the European Renaissance seem to have accepted to a large degree the inevitability of frequent infant death. Some families even reused the name of a dead infant for another child. The tenderness shown in artists' images of the infant Jesus could have reflected an attitude toward babies in general. There was much concern that a baby be baptized as soon as possible. This was done to avoid the risk of its soul remaining in limbo or purgatory for eternity should it die prematurely without being baptized.
Soon after birth a baby was wrapped in swaddling clothes. This was an intricate arrangement of wrapped cloth(s) that kept the arms and legs straight and the body warm. It was also easy to handle, much like carrying a large wrapped loaf of bread. For most children the swaddling clothes were changed from time to time. However there was much more frequent changing of swaddling clothes for babies under the care of live-in nurses in well-to-do homes. Breast-feeding lasted at least a year, sometimes more than two years. The preferred food for weaning was a mixture of fine white wheat and water. This mixture was fed to the child with a spoon up until the time the child was switched to a regular adult diet.
Supervision of infants was not so concentrated as it is today. Most children lived in small houses and were placed in cradles by the fire. Until they could get around by themselves this is where infants in the household were generally found. The mother, a servant, or an older child would keep an eye on the baby while going about other tasks. Swaddled infants were often victims of fatal accidents. They were burned after being placed too near unwatched fires. They were sometimes smothered when sleeping in large beds with adults. Poor people often slept in the same bed with their infants out of convenience and warmth. In historical documents "over-laying" was often listed as a cause of infant death. “Over-laying” was the term used to described people turning over onto babies.
In larger houses there were usually servants to mind the children. Rich or poor no historical records suggest that the home was child-centered. Wealthier children were better fed and safer but they were no more visible. Both the children of the rich and the poor spent most of their time in the world of women that men had little to do with. Poorer children were probably subject to less control and supervision. Nonetheless rich or poor, once out of swaddling clothes babies were not encouraged to crawl freely. Nor once toddlers could walk were they encourage to do so without walkers or leading strings, which were similar to leashes. Untended children who could walk might knock over and be burned by scalding liquids, fall into ditches, or be attacked by animals.
The lives of Renaissance children did not enter into historical record until they were older. Even then the surviving descriptions of children’s lives are generally of boys, not girls. This makes it nearly impossible for us to know much about their earliest stages of life. Children were important primarily because there were so many of them. During the Renaissance more than half the population was under twenty-five. This was an age distribution not unlike many of the developing countries in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Children were also the instrument of one of the fundamental organizing principles of Renaissance society: inheritance. Young people were often treated in contradictory ways. They were expected to be obedient and respectful. However once they had survived infancy the difficulty of taming their rebelliousness and transforming them into moral beings proved a constant challenge.
“Childhood” in Renaissance Europe was commonly thought to begin at age seven and end at fourteen. Children under seven were regarded as being in the stage known as "infancy". As infants they belonged to the world of women. After achieving the age of seven children were regarded as capable of being instructed. In some places the laws considered children under fourteen to be capable of committing adult crimes. Confirmation and first communion took place between the ages of seven and fourteen. Confirmation was the religious ceremony symbolically conferring the gift of the Holy Spirit. The first communion was the first participation in the religious ceremony in which bread and wine are partaken by participants. The bread and wine of course are symbolic of the body and blood of Christ.
Many children started to work before the age of fourteen. Some boys were legally declared "emancipated", i.e., released from parental control, as young as nine. Some boys were even required to bear arms in times of war at an even younger age. Historians have disagreed about the experience of childhood in this period. At the time it was thought that children had to be tightly controlled to prevent them from acting on their impulses. Moralists of the Renaissance claimed that great effort was needed to tame children's wildness. The wildness they believed stemmed from original sin, i.e., the human condition of being sinful at birth. Dealing with children was assumed to be a battle of wills. The only acceptable outcome in this battle was the capitulation by the child to authority.
Children also needed protection against the forces of evil. Evil, i.e. the devil's work, was closely associated with sexuality. Some contemporary scholars note that children were not protected from exposure to coarse and blasphemous language, or to gambling and excessive drinking. Such behavior was impossible to avoid in ordinary village and town life and in the confines of most houses. In spite of this environment, sexual activity outside of marriage was considered the most sinful behavior. Apart from the household, most institutions intended for children were segregated by gender.
While many variations existed depending on the social class of a child's family, play was a part of childhood at all social levels. The few toys that have survived look much like the balls, sticks, hoops, dolls, and marbles of later times. There were occasional references in historical writings to games, and it is unlikely that children played by themselves. Children of the poor who lived in very small houses probably did most of their playing out of doors. Some contemporary experts have claimed that children were raised in households where they received little love and attention. To the contrary however many writers in the Renaissance period frequently counseled parents to stop spoiling their children. It was thought that children needed to be raised in a disciplined and controlled manner.
It was commonly believed that the lower classes were the most likely to spoil children with love and attention. Nonetheless one prominent 16th century English humanist comprised an example of a cultured person admitting in his writings to loving his children dearly. However on the other hand, many children were motherless, fatherless, or completely orphaned. Relatives took orphans into their homes, sometimes in spite of not wanting to do so. It remains uncertain whether life for orphans was more difficult than life for other children. The most deprived children were those who were abandoned and left to be raised in foundling homes. Some of these homes were run by religious orders, while others were under the control of local government.
Serious training started around the age of seven and usually took place within a household. Peasant children of both sexes started helping around the house even before they were seven. One form of early work was looking after younger children. In wealthy households children were likely to pass from wet nurses into the hands of governesses and tutors. Governesses were women hired to care for children. Tutors were generally male teachers. As in peasant households training in wealthy households was determined by gender differences. Girls learned needlework and basic household management skills. Boys were taught horsemanship and hunting. Depending upon regional differences at the age of five, six, or seven some boys and girls began formal schooling. This could be in the form of instruction either inside or outside the home. The form of instruction, whether in Latin or a native language, and extent of education was dependent on a number of variables. These variables could include the economic and social status of the family, the sex of the pupil, the expectations of parents, and the availability of schooling.
In northwestern Europe both urban and rural children commonly left home. Peasant children of both sexes often went to live in other peasant households. Sometimes they were sent to great country houses or to better-off urban ones. Some children became apprentices with craftsmen. If they were of the appropriate social rank others became apprentices to merchants of professionals like physicians and lawyers. At the highest social levels children entered the houses of great nobles or princes. There was no set age at which children left home. The length of time spent away from home depended on various factors. Peasant children might return after a year or two. Then they might spend some time working at home, and then leave again.
Apprenticeships usually lasted for several years and generally meant a permanent separation from home. People who took in children also took on the educational and disciplinary roles of the children's parents. Arrangements with craft masters were usually made by the children's parents. In one form or another this experience was common up and down the social scale. In Italy upper-class families were less likely to send their children away from home. Even craft apprentices in Italy tended to work with their own fathers or with masters in the same town. This permitted the child to continue living at home. Children started learning about religion at a very early age. Most often this was from the women in their lives. The heads of larger households led regular morning and evening prayers. In wealthy households a chaplain led prayers.
The pressure to make religion a part of the household routine became even greater after the Reformation. Many believed that stories from the Bible should replace the traditional fairy tales and stories that were usually told to children. Humanist advisers of women held that the reading of stories distracted from religion and morality. After the Reformation disapproval of stories based on superstition intensified under both Catholics and Protestants. However this criticism did little to change tradition. Parents would remember how the stories had moved or even frightened them as children and would pass them along to their own children.
There were many books written on the topic of courtesy and etiquette, or proper manners. They give an idea of the elaborate code of behavior expected of nobles who frequented the courts of the powerful people. These books were directed at young boys and stressed the importance of good manners and the skills of serving a noble lord at the table. The sons and daughters of gentlemen learned a great deal at court. They also formed links between their families and the families they served and made valuable contacts for their own later careers. Fathers who chose not to give their sons this experience were thought to have done them a great disservice.
The transition from childhood to youth during the Renaissance is difficult to define. Almost everything that has been said about childhood also relates to youth. Youths were still expected to be respectful to elders and obedient to authority. In spite of this the signs of physical maturity made a difference. These signs seem to have generally appeared fairly late, past the conventional age marker of fourteen. Research suggests that this was true not only of menstruation in girls but also of the development of voice change and facial hair in boys. Strength, health, and beauty were youthful characteristics that were praised and envied. Adults tended to be nostalgic about their own youth. Many remembered it as a carefree time rather than one of obedience and hard work.
In reality most master craftsmen made their apprentices do full-scale, difficult projects without paying them. Another characteristic of youth was irresponsibility. Sports and games became more rambunctious. This was especially true when sports and games were combined with drinking and gambling. Of course drinking and gambling were activities specifically forofferden in apprenticeship contracts. Youth groups organized seasonal celebrations, often following tradition. The same groups supervised the courtship behavior of their members. Courtship was similar to modern-day dating. However in Renaissance Europe the “rules” and customs were much more elaborate. Membership in such groups was generally limited to unmarried males, which was the definition of "youth”.
For most people of both sexes being a servant was equated with youth. The conventional view was that servants were both young and single. If they had not left home before the age of fourteen they were likely to do so shortly afterward. Especially in rural settings the period of service could go on for many years. Typically these years of servitude consisted of a series of relatively short stays with different masters. Servants were able to move freely from village to village, town to town. Females especially moved from rural homes into being a servant in an urban setting. Servants were not independent but were always forced to rely on their employers. Young people's apprenticeships sometimes continued well into their twenties and was the form of service with the most well-defined rules.
Stereotypes of apprentices repeated the stereotypes of youth in general. These stereotypes included that youthful servants were abused by masters or that they were difficult to control. Applied to some young people the stereotypes were surely true, but not for most. The end of youth came only with a change in legal status. Not surprisingly, youth was the time for courtship. The primary entry into adulthood was marriage. Marriage of course brought with it a certain degree of autonomy, or independence. It usually coincided with the end of apprenticeship and other kinds of service, for men and women alike.
Women however did not achieve the same legal autonomy. They passed from childhood to status as a servant to the dependency of wifehood. Some men chose not to marry and passed from childhood to an adulthood of partial dependency in monasteries. Monasteries were of course religious-oriented homes for men. Some men became technically autonomous without getting married if their fathers chose to emancipate them. Age alone did not define adulthood. But marriage certainly terminated childhood and youth.
The basic outlines of the Renaissance diet would be familiar to anyone living today. However the way in which Renaissance Europeans thought about food and drink was quite different. Patterns of fasting and feasting were set by the Christian calendar. Fasting of course meant abstaining from eating food. A system of medicine originating with the ancient Greeks was espoused. The system focused upon "humors", which were body fluids such as blood, bile, or urine. The system informed Renaissance European ideas about what food was healthful to eat. Banqueting was the courtly ideal of dining. On the other hand the lower class masses ate simple meals and plain food.
Bread was the single most important item in the European diet for all social classes. It was central to the Christian religion in the form of the Eucharist, or holy communion. It was also the principle agricultural product and a staple of all meals. Wealthier Europeans preferred fine bread made of carefully “bolted”, or sifted wheat flour. Less refined brown bread containing more bran and sometimes including barley or rye was eaten by the lower classes. In times of wheat shortages beans or chestnuts might also be mixed into brown bread. Before the use of individual plates bread typically served as a platter for holding other food.
Cooked grains were also central to the diet. They were easier and cheaper to prepare than bread because they did not require an oven. In the south various forms of porridge were made of cooked barley or millet. Millet was a type of grass with very small seeds which are utilized as a grain. In the north oatmeal or spelt was used to make porridge. Spelt was a wheat variety. People living in extreme poverty used vetches or lupines to make porridge. Letches were reedy plants which could be gathered wild. They’re a legume, a bit like alfalfa. Lupines were a similar type of flower-bearing herb part of the legume family. Rice was not a terribly common ingredient in porridge as it had only been introduced into the European diet relatively recently.
The most common drink in southern Europe was wine. Entire regions were devoted to the production and trade of wine. Monasteries maintained many of the oldest vineyards. Monks produced wine for use in the Catholic mass. The majority of wines were locally manufactured and consumed. However there was a large export trade from regions such as Bordeaux in the south of France. Several expensive types of sweet wines were also imported. One popular wine was imported from Crete, a Mediterranean island off the coast of Greece. Another expensive sweet wine was imported from the Madeira Islands in the North Atlantic, which belonged to Portugal.
Stronger spirits such as brandy, whiskey, and aqua vitae were also available. Aqua vitae was an alcoholic liquid intended for medicinal purposes. In northern Europe beer or ale was the most common beverage. Many Renaissance-era Northern European households brewed their own beer or ale. In some regions, such as Normandy in France and the southwest of England cider pressed from apples was the usual drink. In Eastern Europe mead was made from fermented honey. Mead is one of the most ancient original alcoholic beverages. Water was rarely consumed by itself probably for fear of contamination. However the practice of mixing water with wine was widespread. Whether the water was meant to dilute the wine or the wine to improve the water was a matter of debate in the Renaissance.
The preferred form of fat is another major distinction between southern and northern European diets during the Renaissance. Olive oil dominated in the south and butter in the north. However because it is an animal product butter was not supposed to be used during Lent. Lent is a forty-day period separating Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. It used to be forty weekdays. In either event the period was one during which Christians are supposed to fast and pray. There was a conscious effort to enforce the use of olive oil in the north during Lent. In some regions animal fats such as pork or goose were also be a central part of the diet.
Renaissance Europeans were unique in comparison with the rest of the world's peoples because of the amount of meat and fish they ate. Europe’s relatively small human population left ample space for raising herds of cattle, pigs, goats, and sheep. Animal flesh was eaten by all classes. How it was consumed in greater variety and in larger quantities by the wealthy. Workers in 16th century Flanders (now a region in Belgium) ate rye bread, peas, beans, and cured herring. When the poor ate meat, it had generally been salted in order to preserve it. Tuna fish was also available. The very poor might survive on a diet of two or three pounds of bread a day and nothing else.
The rich ate every variety of meats and fish. And it was prepared in a variety of ways; roasted, grilled, or baked. Meats would be heaped together on metal plates called “mets” in France. The diners would then help themselves. Dinner might consist of as many as eight courses. Typically dinner began with meats in broth and ended with fruit. The presentation of food was important only among the higher social classes and usually only on special occasions. Otherwise quantity was more important than presentation.
The most commonly raised domestic animals included cows, sheep, and goats. Their milk was used to make a wide variety of fresh and aged cheeses. When used as meat these animals were typically eaten while young as veal, lamb, and kid. They could also be consumed at more mature ages. Pigs were important in all parts of Europe. The meat from pigs was preserved throughout the year. Domestic fowl included chickens, duck, geese, and pigeons. Hunting wild game was common. However the privilege to shoot deer for venison or boar (wild pigs) might be reserved for the nobility. Small wild birds such as turtle doves, as well as rabbits, hares, and even hedgehogs were frequently served.
Depending on the location, fish were also extremely important in the European diet. In the Mediterranean along the Atlantic coasts and in the Baltic region fish were either consumed locally or preserved for export. In Northern Europe herring and cod were among the preserved fish. In Southern Europe anchovies, sardines, and bortago (salted belly of tuna) were prepared. These products were important during Lent when they were extensively transported inland. The major river systems provided salmon and trout. Ponds and lakes offered a steady supply of fish to an inland community. Whale meat and porpoise were also among the more expensive and “elegant” foods.
Fruits and vegetables were an integral part of the European diet. Nonetheless astonishing to contemporary dieticians, physicians typically warned against the excessive eating of these fruits and vegetables. Generally the poorer a family was the greater proportion and amount of vegetables they consumed. The 16th century was a period of economic growth. However inflation and a drop in real wages increasingly tightened the average worker's budget. This resulted in families of modest economic means spending more money on cheaper foods. Grains and vegetables became a central and sometimes only part of the diet. This change meant less meat was consumed. It may have been a reason the European diet became increasingly deficient.
Some vegetables were specifically associated with lower classes. These included beans, cabbage, garlic, and onions in particular. Fruits like peaches and melons on the other hand were very popular in European courts. When adding spices to their preparations Renaissance cooks depended on native herbs such as parsley, basil, oregano, marjoram, mint, thyme, sage, tarragon, fennel, dill, bay, coriander, sorrel, saffron, and mustard. There was also an active trade in spices from Asia and Africa. Late medieval and Renaissance cooking made liberal use of spices. Spices were expensive because they had to be shipped across Europe. In the process they were handled by numerous middlemen, each taking a markup. By the time spices reached the consumer they were quite costly and them, so they became a significant marker of social status. The more heavily one could season a dish, the more wealthy and impressive one would seem.
The old adage that at that time spices were used to mask the odor of rancid meat makes little sense. Anyone who could afford spices could also afford fresh meat. Apart from the spices still used in the twenty-first century, there were a number of others commonly imported into Renaissance Europe. "Grains of Paradise" or melegueta pepper .was brought from the west coast of Africa. At least, until the Portuguese feared it would cut into their pepper profits and banned its import in the 16th century. The importance of spices to Renaissance Europe cannot be overstated. It should be remembered that the 15th century Italian explorer Christopher Columbus was primarily looking for spices when he reached the Americas in 1492. His intent was not to discover a new world, but a more direct route to one of Europe’s primary sources for spices, India.
Sugar was also used liberally as a spice during Renaissance Europe. Sugar later formed the backbone of several “New World” slave economies, especially in the Caribbean and Brazil. “New World” was the European term for the Americas. The attempt to find a sea route directly to Asia for spices also inspired the Portuguese to travel around the southern tip of Africa. The Portuguese eventually started colonies in India, Indonesia, and China to service the spice trade. Attitudes toward food in Renaissance culture were informed by several different traditions. Some diets were basic and simple. Others were extravagant and rich.
For the average European during the Renaissance the patterns of feast and fast were set by the seasons and the requirements of the Christian calendar. There were many Christian holidays throughout the year. Additionally individual communities might also have celebrated their own patron saints with festivals and feasts. But no celebration better demonstrates the attitude of excess more than carnival. Even the origin of the term, “carne-val”, from the Latin word "meat", hints at its excesses. Generally this festival was designed as a way to consume all remaining meat before Lent. During Lent with the exception of fish, the eating of meat was forofferden. Carnivals were a way to indulge in food, violence, and sex. The festival climaxed in Mardi Gras on what became known as fat Tuesday, or Shrove Tuesday. This was the day before Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of Lent. The Mardi Gras celebrations often included a staged battle between a fat personification of Carnival bearing sausages, and an old thin woman armed with herring. The old lady armed with herring of course represented Lent.
Most “New World” food products did not gain wide acceptance in Europe until long after the Renaissance. However some crops from the Americas were successfully introduced to Renaissance Europe. These made their first appearance in Europe after being introduced by Christopher Columbus and later explorers. They included tomatoes, potatoes, corn (or maize), peppers, certain types of squash and beans, turkeys, allspice, tobacco, and chocolate are. All these crops originated in the Americas. In many cases they were used in combination with other foods. Corn for example was typically made into polenta, a type of cornmeal mush. Potatoes were made into dumplings. In much of Europe, though, these foods were consciously avoided. Tomatoes did not catch on in Europe for centuries. Many Europeans believed watery vegetables were not meant for human consumption. Tobacco was also thought to be dangerous by some medical doctors.
In stark contrast to these scenes were the official fasts. Lent extended forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter. Before the Easter Bunny this was a commemoration of Christ's resurrection, or rising from the dead. Though not the only time, Easter was the most important time meat, milk, butter, and eggs were forofferden. One could get permission to break the rules, and this was apparently done somewhat regularly. For instance beaver's tail and puffins (a seabird) were defined as fish products and therefore suitable for Lent. Otherwise most Europeans did survive on fish and vegetables during Lent. For the upper classes this did not necessarily involve any hardship. Rare and exotic fish as well as elaborate varieties of fruit were common among the wealthy. Of course in essence this negated the purpose of Lent as a period of prayer and atonement.
Protestants did not observe Catholic rituals for Lent. Nevertheless some European rulers declared periods of state-mandated. The 16th Century Queen Elizabeth I of England mandated Lent observance so as to prevent the supply of meat from dwindling and its price from soaring. The second major influence on European foods in the Renaissance was nutritional theory. Renaissance physicians used a system they had inherited from the Greeks and Arabs. This was based on what were termed the four “humors” of the body. According to this theory human health depends on the balance of the humors. Those humors are blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm, or mucus. It was thought that one particular humor was dominant in every individual and determined his or her complexion or temperament.
These predominant influences can be summarized as sanguine, or cheerful, which was related to blood. Phlegmatic or slow personalities would be related to phlegm, or mucus. Melancholic or sad personalities were related with black bile. Choleric or angry personalities were it was believed predominated by the yellow bile humor. Renaissance nutritional experts believed they could classify every food according to the humors and how they might affect the individual. Animals and plants also have their own complexion. Although there was wide disagreement among nutritionists about how to classify certain foods, flavor was the dominant factor.
Spicy, aromatic, and salty foods were all classified as hot and dry. They were thought to increase hot and dry or choleric humors in the body. This diet was thought to be an advantage for people who had an excess of phlegmatic humors, for the food acted as a counterbalance. Sour foods and condiments were considered cold and dry. They were used to treat those with an excess of bile. It is possible that many popular food combinations were originally designed with this in mind. For example cold and moist pork could be balanced with hot and dry mustard. Hot and moist sweet dishes might be balanced with sour, or cold and dry condiments.
Beyond their dominant humors, individual foods were also assigned specific properties. These perceived properties included the power to open or close the body's passages, aid digestion, cause sweating, and promote sleep. Consequently the order of a meal was considered important. It was believed that certain foods should precede other foods. For instance it was believed that foods that can rot easily, like melons and cucumbers, should never be allowed to rest at the top of the stomach. If such foods were eaten last it was believed that they might go bad before being digested. The list of rules and the resulting arguments waged in professional circles was endless. Numerous dietary guidelines were published during the Renaissance.
From the evidence provided by the first cookbooks, food in the early Renaissance was not very different from that of preceding centuries. The only major change was the appearance of distinctly regional styles of cooking. This was as opposed to the more international character of medieval cuisine. The first printed cookbook was “De honesta voluptate”, or “Of honorable pleasure”. The book was printed in 1475 and its author was the 15th century Italian humanist Bartolomeo Sacchi, who was called “Platina”. The cookbook contained recipes borrowed from a compilation made in the Middle Ages. Platina's recipes reflect medieval influences. These included the heavy use of spices and sugar. Other unique ingredients called for included almond milk, rosewater, reduced grapes (“defrutum”), and the juice of unripened grapes (“verjus”).
Platina's work also contains much nutritional and historical information. It was the best-selling book about food during the Renaissance period. It was translated from Latin into Italian, German, and Dutch. A French translation ran through dozens of editions throughout the 16th century. The most detailed cookbook of the Renaissance was the Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi. Scappi was the chef to Pope Pius V from 1566 to 1572. As such Scappi had access to the latest kitchen equipment. Within his book there detailed illustrations. Among the most recent inventions at the time of publication was the fork. His recipes numbered in the hundreds. They demonstrate the transitional period as Italian food of the Renaissance period broke away from medieval cuisine. The recipes for pasta and stews are similar to those of today. Apart from cookbooks designed for actual use several other food-related books became popular. Books about the eating habits of ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as guides for kitchen management and carving also became best-sellers in Renaissance courts.
Clothing and fashion were important in the Renaissance. The economic, social, and political changes of the time were reflected in popular styles. These styles included the raising of hemlines for men and the lengthening of them for women. There was a shift toward military uniforms. The Protestant Reformation had an impact on clerical dress. Clothing also evolved to more sharply reflect class distinctions. Clothing was central in the shaping of identity. Color, cut, fold, and draping took on great importance. Changes in clothing revealed as much about class distinctions and national character. Clothing also reflected changing perceptions of masculinity, femininity, and ideals of beauty.
Economic conditions toward the end of the 14th century became favorable for the clothing trade. Generally within Europe there was political stability, greater wealth, and an expanding market. These made it possible for industries to emerge in Italy and elsewhere based on the production, importation, and exportation of luxury goods and cloths. For instance silk weaving had been introduced by the Jewish population in the 10th century. In Lucca, Italy, the silk industry expanded considerably after the mid-14th century. Venice benefited from its commercial network and large fleet to import precious silks and textiles. This included cloth and materials for making cloth from the East.
Silk in general underwent an expansion in Spain and later in France. However Italy remained central for the production of silks. This included such luxury materials as satins, velvets, taffeta, and eventually lace. Wool and linen would remain the most used fabrics of Renaissance Europe. However the wearing of luxury cloth became such a large part of society that laws were passed to limit the manufacturing and consumption of these fabrics. The main purpose of these “sumptuary laws” was to limit the consumption of luxury items. The laws also determined who could wear what, and regulated the shape and style of garments. With the increased import of precious metals after Columbus's journey to America, Italy was challenged by new manufacturing and trade centers in the north. These developments resulted in Italy increasing its production and trading in luxury cloths and silks.
For northern countries new manufacturing equipment that had previously been prohibited by old guild regulations began to appear. Guilds were medieval craft and trade groups that trained apprentices and set standards for production of goods. First on the scene was the fulling mill, upon which woolen cloth was processed. Shortly thereafter the knitting machine was introduced after its invention in 1589. At the same time technological innovations improved processes of weaving and dying. In England landowners increased their own wool production by turning part of their land into pasture. Thus wool-bearing animals had more space to graze.
Fashion was extremely important to the Renaissance man, especially when he was at court. Every day the fashionable man undertook his dressing with the aid of a servant. The servant was required to perform the tedious task of ting up the gentleman’s “points”. “Points” were pieces of lace that held a garment together. Then it was required that the servant lace the doublet, which was a close-fitting jacket. Following that it was required that he arrange the stomacher, which was a piece of cloth heavily jeweled or embroidered worn at the center of the bodice. Last it came time to fasten the frilled shirt.
Costume varied across nations. In general however men's long garments still prevailed at churches and universities. However they did become much shorter. The surcoat which was an outer coat or cloak, went out of fashion in favor of the exposed hose-enclosed leg. Attached to the hose was the pour-pont. This was a chest-and-waist-fitted doublet made of lined and quilted rich fabric. The pour-pont took on many varied forms and cuts over the years and across regions. Regions in turn influenced one another. For instance when the 15th century French king Charles VIII invaded Italy in 1494, the French and Italians exchanged clothing styles.
Toward the end of the 16th century Spain began to set standards of fashion that would eventually dominate throughout Europe. The Spanish preferred a simple and somber line of clothing. Softness was replaced by a straight and stiff silhouette. The doublet was designed to emphasize the slimness of the waist, and black became the preferred color for Spaniards. In France mid-16th century King Henry II and his court were especially fond of dark hues over-traced with gold. There was an absence of the Italian ornamentation that was usually found in clothing. During the subsequent reign of French King Henry III the French briefly returned to the Italian style. In the early 17th century in the court of King Henry IV noblemen had to have as many as thirty suits. They were expected to change them frequently in order to maintain respectability.
It was during this time that the ruff around the neck grew increasingly pronounced in size. The ruff was a large round collar of pleated muslin or linen. It grew very large in size, especially in Elizabethan England. According to one writer by 1579 wearers could barely move their heads. Women also used a variety of cosmetics, jewels, headgear, and accessories. Queen Elizabeth I made clothing a central part of her political strategies. She wished to preserve the complexion of a "virgin queen". The nickname “Virgin Queen” had been given her because she was unmarried. She maintained a “virgin” complexion by applying a thick layer of white powder makeup to her already pale face.
Accessories became more important than ever, for men as well as women. Earrings had disappeared in the Middle Ages. But Renaissance Europe witnessed a resurgence in their popularity. Handkerchiefs also became very popular. Gloves were central to fashion and were sometimes made of gold cloth encrusted with hundreds of pearls. Fans, hand mirrors, and elaborately embroidered objects completed the accessories women found necessary for social occasions, particularly during Elizabeth's reign. Prostitutes were given more leeway in dress and ornamentation than their more constricted, domesticated sisters. This was especially true in cities such as Venice. Their dress influenced that of respectable women. Prostitutes often started fads such as wearing high wooden platform shoes. The shoes were so tall that one commentator described the spectacle as watching a creature of half wood and half woman totter down the street.
During the Renaissance women's fashion became increasingly elaborate. Sumptuary laws attempted to limit the measurements, the amount of jewel trimming, and the cut of women's clothing. Throughout Europe by the end of the 15th century the gown replaced other garments for women except for the elegant surcoat. Both the gown and the surcoat fitted tightly to the upper part of the body while the skirt flowed and trailed on the ground. This lengthened the line and accentuated the waist and hips. Gown necklines varied. The square neckline came from Italian styles. Burgundians favored pointed neck openings, Gown sleeves tended to trail. In the 16th century as had men, women also adopted Spanish fashions. Most notable was the farthingale, which were hoops worn under a skirt to expand it at the hip.
The farthingale was a favorite garment of early 17th century Marguerite de Valois, Henry IV’s queen consort. The farthingale could take on many variations and required the building of special high chairs to accommodate the hoops when women sat down. Clothing covered the body but it also changed, shaped, squeezed, and exaggerated the human form. For Renaissance men puffy doublets gave the broad-shouldered appearance of a soldier in armor. Likewise coats were padded with hay and straw at the shoulders. With hose male legs received new emphasis. The waist as well was emphasized, typically set off by a form-fitting doublet or tightened with a belt. In addition the increasingly prominent codpiece exaggerated the male groin area. The codpiece was a flap or bag concealing an opening in the front of breeches, or pants. It had originated in Germany. The shell shape was particularly popular.
Women also wore clothing that enhanced or exaggerated their bodies. In 16th century Italy women "full of flesh" were favored and compared to wine barrels. To emphasize this full-figured ideal women's clothes were layered with jewelry made of gold, emeralds, and pearls. However following Spanish influences women's waists were gradually squeezed in. This led to increasingly rigid and torturous whalebone bodices that also tightly compressed the breasts. Clothing for the lower social classes were simple and tended not to vary much regionally. For peasants underwear came into use in the 13th century. Legs might be bare and feet were uncovered except for a flat sole held by a leather strap wound around the leg. Some peasants in Flanders wore wooden shoes, as did the urban cloth workers in Florence. Women wore skirts and aprons tucked up for work. These were topped with tight bodices and enveloping cloaks. Men dressed in buttoned jackets, short breeches, and wide-brimmed hats.
Material utilized for clothing consisted primarily of coarse wool or unbleached linen. Colors were restricted primarily to black for women's clothing. For men the colors “choices” were dull browns and grays. Those who worked in a luxury industry attempted to imitate the higher classes by wearing velvet on special occasions. However in general to the drab clothes of the lower social orders consisted of silver buttons or scarves. Occasionally one might see a taffeta, which was a plainly-woven elegant fabric. One might on occasion also see a muff. A muff was a tubular item of clothing, normally made of fur, used to warm the hands. Only at the end of the 17th century would developments in industrial production offer the lower classes a wide variety of fabric and colors. The very poor continued to wear hand-me-down rags or coarse wool garments donated by trade guilds or religious fraternities.
Fashion in the Renaissance took many elements from the military. These fashions ranged from breeches to the wearing of swords. Swords were typically worn by noblemen wore for ceremonial decoration at court. Beginning in Germany an obsession for slashes and puffed sleeves moved across Europe. This fashion peaked in the 16th century. The style was said to have been derived from the tattered clothing of Swiss mercenaries returning from a victory against Charles the Bold , duke of Burgundy, in 1476. The Swiss had seized the garments off defeated dead soldiers. The returning mercenary soldiers found the clothes too tight, so they slashed them or allowed the seams to rip. This of course caused the garments to puff out.
The Germans who first noted this look were responsible in turn for the military-like "lattice" breeches. These were made of wide strips of material and are worn by the papal Swiss Guards today. The Thirty Years' War which lasted from 1618 to 1648 seems to have been especially influential in spreading military-style amongst the larger population. These included the soft, broad-brimmed hat often worn by soldiers, which later became the three-cornered tricorn. Also included were a broad collar, as well as the rows of buttons that decorated the seams of trousers.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, armor became increasingly unnecessary in the face of changes in warfare. A protective metal suit worn in combat gave the wearer little advantage when faced with the use of massed troops and artillery, including guns and cannons. Nevertheless armor reached new levels of decoration that served more ceremonial than practical functions. In the 16th century the most famous master armor maker was Filippo Negroli of Milan, Italy. The detailed helmets and shields he produced were made for such leaders as the 16th century Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and King Francis I of France.
Negroli drew upon themes in traditional Greek and Roman art. A fourth-generation member of an armor-making dynasty, he specialized in all'antica. This was a contemporary type of armor fashioned in the style of antiquity that featured images of lions, dragons, and Medusa heads. Medusa of course was a monster in Greek mythology who had snakes for hair. Among the more elaborate of Negroli’s designs was a helmet that was a kind of monster mask. It consisted of flying batwing cheek pieces, fangs thrusting from the jaw, and a pair of ram like horns positioned on the top of the head.
After the 16th century the rise of infantry warfare involving masses of men generated the need for uniforms. Early versions of uniforms could be found in the 15th century. Swiss soldiers wore short, brightly colored slashed doublets and tight breeches. Another example could be found in the 16th century, when troops in the imperial army in Nuremberg, Germany, wore red coats. Around the same time English soldiers under the duke of Norfolk wore suits of blue trimmed with red. German Landsknechten mercenaries recruited from the lower orders pioneered the use of long breeches and cloaks in battle. They were also the first to wear widened slashes and puffed sleeves. In general however uniforms of a more simple and useful variety would not develop until the means of mass production were available at the end of the 17th century.
Popes, cardinals, and other clergy were not immune from embracing the clothing trends of the time. Pope Paul II issued vestimentary laws in the 15th century. These were laws relating to the clothes, or vestments, of the clergy. They were intended to regulate occasionally outrageous costumes. Although not typical, the 15th century Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga went into debt with his purchase of Turkish floor-length robes. These were of crimson and green damask, various velvets and woven silks, and other similarly extravagant garments. In another reaction to these displays the 15th century Italian monk and preacher Girolamo Savonarola inspired many "bonfires of vanities" in Florence in the 1490s. These bonfires were ceremonies in which luxury items were burned in protest against the extravagance of the clergy and laity alike.
Precious veils and cosmetics, and ornaments were thrown onto the fires. They were accompanied by masses of false hair, blonde was the fashionable color. The early 16th century Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus commented upon the increasingly elaborate clothing of the clerical orders. He noted their obsession with girdles, cowls (hoods on cloaks), gowns, and tonsures, which was a fashionably shaven portion of the head, usually the crown. The Protestant Reformation also had an impact on clothing. Adherents of the new faith were distinguished by black scarves, white gowns, and plain white surplices. Surplices were long outer garments with open sleeves.
Festivals, processions, and special events became more frequent in the Renaissance. These events were encouraged by the increased spending power, princely and civic displays, and a general desire for showmanship. As a result clothing became more elaborate. This was especially so in the 17th century when the masque became a fully developed theatrical court genre. This was a form of drama in which actors used masks. It became such an important phenomena in England that the 17th century scientific scholar Sir Francis Bacon wrote a treatise on the subject.
Performances were always at night and usually illuminated by candlelight. The most flattering clothing colors were thought to be white, carnation red, or a kind of "sea-water” green. Costumes could also be made of "tynsell", i.e., tinsel, a sparkling metal thread. Costumes were further decorated with beads and sequins, sequins being small disks of shiny metal. They might be further adorned with gold tassels, gilt bells, fringing, and silver and gold lace.
Masks were usually made of velvet and built up to produce a dramatic effect. Foreign visitors often thought the costumes to be outrageous and bizarre. The French were most noted for the dress displayed at glittering court events. The French gained a reputation for spectacles of unparalleled magnificence. In 17th century France ballets became ways for performers to dress as Indians, Moors, Africans, and Asians. French court members indulged in their own kind of theater. At special events they would dress as Persian shahs, Turks, Rajas (Indian princes), and Native Americans.
Renaissance festivals may be usefully classified in several different ways. Both religious and civic festivals were directed toward representing the established order in a favorable light. As well the intent was to create an impression of harmony and security within the empire. Some festivals took place annually. Others were organized for unique occasions. Others were popular and folkloric. These celebrated a tradition based on a popular myth or folk tale. Many involved elite and learned participants. Some festivals were meant to defy normal religious and social customs, if only for a day. For example an old tradition in some cities allowed the common people to destroy the canopy under which a religious official had just ridden. At Ferrara, Italy, in 1598, even Pope Clement VIII's horse was taken as a prize by the over-excited crowd.
Civic pageantry was also aimed at presenting a unified image of the state and society. Military processions and local ceremonies would often put the head of state and other government officials on display to the people. Foreign ambassadors, delegations of foreign merchants, and representatives of local guilds were often featured as well. These public displays implied a harmony among the various social classes and even among the nations of the Christian world. The calendar of religious feasts and processions was meant to give a sense of harmony between human history and the universe. When civic officials took part in religious processions, they were showing that spiritual and everyday, or non-religious, secular life were one.
One example was the Palm Sunday processions in Venice the Sunday before Easter. For Italian city-states, feast days were the equivalent of modern-day celebrations such as Bastille Day in France or Independence Day in the United States. In Florence symbolic tribute was offered on the Feast of Saint John the Baptist on June 24th.. Saint John was considered the last Jewish prophet and forerunner of Jesus Christ. In Florence the Feast of Saint John was often celebrated with parades complete with patriotic floats. In Siena the Assumption of the Virgin on August 15th was the national holiday. This celebrated the day when the Virgin Mary was believed to have been raised to heaven. Venice celebrated not just the Feast of Saint Mark. There were several additional holidays celebrating the saint's connection with the Republic of Venice. Saint Mark was of course one of Jesus’ disciples and the feast was celebrated every April 25th.
The routes taken by civic processions similarly suggested an integration of church and state. They also emphasized the link between the ruler and the ruled. Visiting monarchs stopped at city gates to receive greetings from town fathers. Then they proceeded to the local cathedral to be received by the bishop. The ruler would while at the cathedral make a demonstration of personal religious piety and devotion. Only after this ceremony were they free to go to the palace where they would be staying. In some Cities multiple stopovers might be required. For example Naples, Italy, had five seggi, or seats of district governments. Monarchs stopped at designated points along the entry route to receive the homage of the various local authorities.
New popes would participate in an elaborate procession to take possession of Saint John Lateran, which was an ancient basilica, or church. The new pope’s procession would pause to accept the civil allegiance of the Jewish colony in Rome. The stop also confirmed the colony’s ongoing civil rights. New sovereigns in England and France noted messages from various groups in their first grand progress through London and Paris. Official accounts of these processions tended to be positive. It seems that public enthusiasm was enormous. Awareness of injustices were suspended temporarily as people were caught up in a feeling of civic pride.
Civic unity was also promoted by celebrations of royal and noble weddings. If the bride came from another state or country, joyous entries into the city were part of the ceremony. A series of courtly entertainments usually took place as well. An example was the wedding of the 16th century duke of Florence, Cosimo I. Cosimo married and the daughter of the Spanish viceroy of Naples in 1539. A viceroy was an official who represented the king. The union represented a significant political alliance between Spain and Florence. The themes of the entry decorations celebrated this alliance. Courtly entertainments included banquets, indoor pageants, tournaments or other contests of chivalry, and fireworks. The entertainments also included the performance of comedies, which was a particularly important component of any such event in Italy.
After carnivals wedding festivities were the principal occasion for the staging of comedies. For example in Ferrara, Italy, a prominent wedding occurred in 1502 between Lucretia Borgia and Alfonso I d'Este. A portion of the wedding entertainments included the performance of comedies of the 3rd century BC Roman playwright Plautus. The comedies were performed in Italian. Later in the century original neoclassical comedies were put on in Florence, Mantua, and Ferrara. The comedies were performed in the vernacular, or local language. The comedies were called “commedie erudite”, or “learned comedies”. The first performance of neoclassical comedy in France took place when 16th century Queen Catherine de Médicis visited Lyon.
Elaborate nuptial (wedding) festivities also became common in northern Europe. The wedding of the Danish king Frederick II in 1572 was celebrated with banquets, a tournament, and a grand passage of the bride through the streets of Copenhagen. The celebrations for the wedding of the 16th century Scottish King James VI to Anne of Denmark apparently included the playing of comedies both in Latin and in Danish. James VI not ruled Scotland but England as well as James I. The celebratory comedies were performed first at Oslo, Norway, and then at the Danish court. Northern European courtly entertainments eventually became more elaborate than the Italian, moving toward a lavish style called “baroque”. In the 1634 celebrations in Copenhagen for the wedding of prince-elect Christian included a ballet, two musical comedies, and an extremely elaborate display of fireworks.
The art of court festivals became an international affair. Italians were often employed in the north. The 17th century English architect Inigo Jones who possessed Italian experience almost certainly designed festival material for Hamburg, Germany, in 1603. English actors performed in Germany and Denmark. Humanist professors and students in various cities amused themselves at times by reviving classical festivals or by celebrating events in Roman history. This practice was carried furthest in the university at Rome. In the late 15th century Julius Pomponius Laetus and some colleagues renewed observance of the Palilia. The celebration had originally been an agriculture festival but in classical times it also commemorated the anniversary of the building of Rome.
In the early years of the revival there was more drinking than eating. A Latin oration in praise of the city was the central ceremonial element of the celebration. In 1501 the festivities were moved to the Campidoglio, the ancient Capitolium, and officials from the Vatican and the city government began to participate. In 1513 the Palilia was the occasion for the most remarkable and learned festival of the Renaissance. The new pope Leo X who reigned from 1513 to 1521 asked the city government to grant honorary Roman citizenship to his brother Giuliano Medici and his nephew Lorenzo de' Medici.
The flattered city officials resolved to conduct the proceedings with as much style as possible. First the city officials arranged for the citizenship ceremony to coincide with the Palilia. They then commissioned the construction of an enormous neoclassical theater. The theatre featured temporary statues and paintings that depicted events in ancient history. Paintings and inscriptions concentrated on the (allegedly) friendly relations between the early Romans and Etruscans. The Etruscans were ancient peoples who settled the region in central Italy now known as Tuscany, where Florence is located. In fact the Romans and Etruscans were continually at war with one another in ancient times.
In the ceremony the Romans were named the symbolic ancestors of the Medicis. The Etruscans were named the symbolic ancestors of the Florentines. Proceedings included a mass which was the only religious element in the ceremony. There was also a Latin oration in praise of Rome and the Medicis. Finally of course there was the presentation of a diploma of citizenship to the Pope’s brother and cousin. An elaborate banquet of more than twenty courses was served. A complex pageant was performed in Latin. Plautus's Poenulus was performed in Latin. Both female and male roles were filled by male students.
Afterward the Romans took fierce pride in what they had accomplished. This event was one of the last times Latin was used as the main language in a public Roman celebration. Pope Leo X authorized annual celebrations of the Palilia, but there was never again such splendor. Festivals such as this that served as protection from popular resentment or as subversions of public order have attracted the attention of historians in recent years. An undoubted ancestor of many Renaissance festivals of this kind can be seen in the Roman Saturnalia. Saturnalia was celebrated around the time of the winter solstice. This was at the beginning of winter, typically about December 22. During one staging of the ancient feast the social order was turned upside down. Masters and slaves exchanged clothing. The masters then served the slaves at the table.
This led to the “Feast of Fools” or “Festum Stultorum” was long celebrated in religious communities over most of western Europe. It was held shortly after Christmas, near the time of the old Saturnalia. Social hierarchy was reversed. A young cleric or monastic novice was elected bishop. Things normally held sacred were made fun of, particularly in mock masses. In association with the “Feast of Fools” some locales observed a “Feast of Asses”, or “Festum Asinorum”. A donkey was brought into church and both priest and congregation mimicking the cry of a donkey, brayed at certain points of the liturgy. However high church officials took steps to stop this custom. By the 16th century however such celebrations were in decline. Secular festivals of misrule however continued to be practiced.
In the 15th and 16th centuries France and other European countries had organizations that were sometimes called abbeys, or kingdoms of misrule. Composed mostly of young men these associations elected abbots or kings who led them in a variety of activities for regular festivals like Christmas and carnival. They also led “charivaris. These were rowdy events that humiliated men who were dominated by their wives. The men were known as "hen-pecked husbands". Often the wives themselves took part in the festivities. In sixteenth-century England a court of mis-rule was sometimes convened for Yuletide. These celebrations were principally among the higher social classes during a period of time immediately before and after Christmas.
By far the most important annual feast of "transgression" was carnival. It was celebrated over most of central and western Europe, at least until the Reformation. Thereafter carnival was suppressed, along with Lent, in most (but not all) Protestant areas. Carnival was originally celebrated on the “Twelfth Night”. This was the evening of “Epiphany”, or the coming of the Magi after the birth of Jesus. Again this was close to the time of the old Saturnalia. During the Renaissance it was confined in most places to the last few days before Lent, whose date varied with that of Easter. Carnival was a period of licensed, authorized celebration of "the world turned upside down." The forms of celebrations varied with local tradition. Masking was perhaps the most common element. Masking however was periodically forofferden in reaction to various excesses.
In really bad times the celebration of carnival was suspended. One example is as in Rome in the years following the Sack of 1527, the invasion by the army of Emperor Charles V. Carnival was perhaps the most popular of all annual festivals, so the decision to forgo the festival was not a light one. People did not give it up easily. Rome had one of the most elaborate series of carnival entertainments. Setting the annual program was the privilege and responsibility of the city government, the Campidoglio. The program had to be approved by the pope, who would help with expenses. Nearly all events took place in the week between the last two Sundays before Lent. Celebratory activities included several footraces. One was for young men, another for Jews, one for old men, and occasionally one for prostitutes.
There were also horse races, bullfights, and games involving other animals. Some of the games involving animals might seem very cruel to the modern perspective. Several games took place on the second Sunday at a hill called Testaccio outside the city walls. On certain other days contests of chivalry were held for young aristocrats. On Shrove Thursday the main pageant of carnival was held in Piazza Navona, then called the Agone. One of the highlights was a parade that included the single senator and three officials (“conservatori”) of the city government. The parade featured a float depicting historical and mythological figures. Prominent writers and academics planned the floats. First-rate artists sometimes decorated them.
The Roman celebrations thus included both learned and popular elements, both aristocratic and plebeian (of the common populace). While there was much blowing off of steam and relieving of tensions truly subversive elements were not very visible. The pageant often flattered the reigning pope. For instance the pageant of 1536 recreated the triumph of Paulus Aemilius, or Pope Paul III who reigned from 1534 to 1549. Masking was no doubt politically risky. Popes forbade disguises which mocked the clergy or religious ceremonies. Carnival harassment of the Jews was also strictly forofferden. Historians interpret this as an indication that such activity was likely to occur otherwise, and probably did in other circumstances.
Among other Italian carnivals those in Florence and Venice were especially elaborate. In 1513 two companies of young Florentines similar to the abbeys of misrule staged competing parades through town. The parade of the first group had chariots portraying golden ages of the past and present. The golden age of the present was a reference to the recent return to power of the Medici family. The golden age of the past was naturally a reference to the ancient Roman Empire. The second parade showed the three ages of man. Comedies were often performed for carnival in Florence as in other Italian cities. There arose a special lyric genre of carnival songs known as “canti carnascialeschi”. These songs were a favorite of Lorenzo de' Medici “the Magnificent”, the city's ruler in the late 15th century.
Venice had a particularly long carnival celebration. It began on Twelfth Night. The official climax came on Shrove Thursday. At this point the duke (“doge”) and other officials over-saw a bizarre celebration of a 12th-century victory over the patriarch of Aquileia. In this ceremony a bull and three hundred pigs were put on "trial" and executed. However the execution occurred only after the animals were teased and chased around the plaza (“piazetta”). In the Piazza San Marco there were sometimes parades that mocked the official ones of the republic. These festivities were usually performed without any tensions between officials and the people. As in Florence many carnival activities were carried out by groups of wellborn young men. In Venice they were known as “Campagnie delle Claze”.
These groups sometimes staged pageants in the piazza on specially built platforms. They also held performances of comedies, usually in private houses. Many strangers came into town during the Venetian carnival. They came both for the spectacles and for the masking, which was performed for free. The official activity of Italian carnivals was scarcely subversive. It was often even supportive of government. However in Germany it was more daring. During the early years of the Reformation, carnival parades and floats in several cities mocked the pope and Roman Catholic clergy. By the time of Protestant Reformation the target of the mirth had changed. At Nuremberg in 1539 the main float was a ship which poked fun at the principal Protestant preachers who were opposed to carnival pleasures.
Nervous city authorities everywhere tried to prevent such embarrassments. Most plays such as those performed in Nuremberg, usually spared official government institutions and officials from ridicule. The subject matter was usually human failings, such as envy and lust. France offers the exceptional example of a carnival celebration that turned to violence. In the Dauphiné town of Romans social tensions had been high for some time. In 1580 a group of celebrators took advantage of the confusion of carnival and massacred a large number of reform-minded revelers who had also been participating in carnival. Contemporary scholars are still unsure whether or not the "upside down" atmosphere of carnivals laid the groundwork for the social, political, and religious revolution of the times.
In the High Middle Ages during the 11th to 13th centuries fairs became a significant feature of economic activity. By the end of the High Middle Ages they existed in large numbers all over northwestern Europe. Less historical information is available about such events in Eastern Europe and Italy. Most fairs were the expansion of a local weekly market into an annual event lasting a few days. Often fairs were held at the same time as the feast of a locally celebrated saint. A much smaller number were celebrated regionally or nationally. Though such fairs sometimes attracted merchants from a foreign country, it was absent the status of a truly international celebration.
Classic examples of this would be the English fairs of Saint Ives, Boston, and Winchester, which were visited by Flemish merchants buying wool and selling cloth. There was an annual cycle of six fairs in Flanders. It was composed of two fairs at Ypres and one each at Bruges, Torhout, Lille, and Messines. These were larger fairs but did not rise much more above a regional status than did their English counterparts. The only true international fairs included the cycle of Champagne in northeastern France with two each at Troyes and Provins, and one each at Lagny and Bar-sur-Aube. By the end of the 12th century these were the most energetic centers of trade in Europe. There Italians exchanged products for northern cloth brought by merchants from the Low Countries, France, and England.
The Champagne fairs may be singled out also as the only occasions before the 15th century when such transactions were monetized. These transactions were unique in the sense that money was a commodity of exchange. Money actually changed hands, either in coin form or international bills of exchange. This feature helped maintain the importance of Champagne fairs until about the 1320s. However as centers for trade in wares that Champagne fairs had had been in decline for at least forty years before that. A downturn in the economy in the 14th century caused a severe and widespread decline in fair activity. Recovery in the 15th and 16th centuries was patchy, and conditions were fluid. At first it seemed that Chalon-sur-Saône in Burgundy, France, might survive as an international successor to the Champagne fairs. However even before 1400 Geneva, Switzerland had secured that position.
For most of the 15th century Geneva’s four fairs spaced throughout the year were massively attended by merchants from the Rhineland, the Low Countries, Italy, Spain, and France. Generally these merchants sold goods, bullion and/or coins, and financial instruments. In 1420 the French dauphin established fairs at Lyon, in Burgundy. A dauphine is the eldest son of a king of France, in this case the future King of France Charles VII who ruled from 1422 to 1461. Initially the fairs at Lyon, Burgundy benefited from merchants coming from Geneva. However later the two cities, Geneva and Lyon, became rivals. The turning point came in 1463 when the King of France Louis XI who ruled from 1461 to 1483 changed the dates of the Lyon fairs to be the same as the Geneva fairs.
Of course at that point merchants had to choose between which fair to attend. The importance of the fair at Geneva began to diminish. One early indication of the shift in importance was the transfer of a branch of the Medici bank from Geneva to Lyon in 1465. By the early 16th century the Geneva fair was greatly overshadowed by the Lyon fair. The quarterly fairs of Lyon dominated Europe for the greater part of the 16th century. The fairs supported a prosperous trade in merchandise, especially silks and spices. However they were best known and most prominent for their role in the international money market. Loans were arranged there, bills cleared, and interest rates established.
By the 1580s financial business was shifting to Besançon. This was another town conveniently positioned on the borders of France and the Roman Empire. Besançon flourished until well into the 17th century. It operated purely as a money fair acting in close cooperation with similar fairs in Piacenza and Genoa in Italy and Medina del Campo in Spain. The major Flemish fairs did not survive into the later Middle Ages and those of the northern Low Countries never became more than local events. In the 15th century a cycle of four important fairs was established in Antwerp, Belgium, and in what is now part of the Netherlands and Belgium. This was at that time Bergen op Zoom in Brabant. The growth of Antwerp as a major international center of trade and finance in the early 16th century caused these fairs to decline. Part of the reason fairs existed was that they allowed visitors and temporarily suspended local monopolies. However inasmuch as Antwerp was ordinarily an open city in this respect it did not need the fairs.
In the early 1560s the English Merchant Adventurers Company tried with little success to restrict its members' business to the traditional fair structure of both towns. The company’s cloth trade provided a major stimulus to the fairs in the fifteenth century, so they were not without influence. However their efforts were generally a failure. In England many of the smallest fairs simply died out. Others changed their character and even increased their size by specializing in one or two products or types of livestock. They would oftentimes combine such merchandizing efforts with an annual labor hiring function. Some relics still survive under regional names, though very few retain any of their ancient characteristics.
Among the few nationally significant fairs of this period, the most important were those at Bristol, England; at Beverly in Yorkshire, England; and above all at Stourbridge, near Cambridge, England. The Stourbridge fair was unheard of in earlier times. However it flourished until the 18th century and was patronized by customers from all over England. In northern Europe the great fair at Scania in southern Sweden survived until the mid-16th century. Although basically considered a herring or fish fair, it was also a general distribution point for much of the west Baltic region. Apart from Scania the Hanseatic (German) towns had little use for fairs. They even went so far as to enact civil ordinances preventing visiting English and Dutch merchants from attending the fairs in northern Germany and Poland.
The most important German fair was that of Frankfurt am Main. Scholars still debate whether this was an international fair or just an extremely large and successful regional one. However it is clear that textiles brought from Italy and southern Germany were sent from the fair to the Low Countries. English and Dutch cloth distributed in the opposite direction, to Italy and Germany. So really there seems no reason to doubt its international status given its geographical reach. In the 16th century the Frankfurt am Main fair became important for financial transfers between Germany and the Low Countries. However activity was not on the scale of Lyon and the other southern fairs. Leipzig may be included as the second German fair town and for its book fair, which still survives.
The medieval world was filled with sporting contests. These ranged from chivalric tournaments to church-sponsored ball games. The Renaissance world also celebrated such contests. However they were imbued with the new sense of individuality, gender, education, and the body that accompanied Renaissance thought. For humanists such as the 15th century Italian scholar Leon Battista Alberti the pursuit of sports was the perfect meeting of the body and mind. He claimed that the scholar who engaged in sporting activities would achieve the ideal combination of mental and physical development necessary to become a "universal man." Such a man was to choose carefully, and have a perfect balance among his sports: swimming, running, hunting, wrestling, and horseback riding. All of these sports as well as certain ones that focused on "ball-play" were acceptable because they were played by the ancient Greeks. Not all Renaissance men agreed, however. Some such as the early 16th century Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus held that honesty and responsibility were important elements of sport. However he felt that the overall goal of the society should be to produce gentlemen and scholars, not athletes.
On the playing fields and among nobler classes jousting tournaments continued in popularity despite the pleas for cessation by academics and scholars. The English king Henry VIII was an avid supporter and participant in such games. Contests of physical strength and skill could be important diplomatic events. One example is surely Henry's wrestling match with the French king Francis I at the Field of Cloth of Gold pageant in 1520. Another enthusiast of chivalric games was King Henry II of France. He was killed in a jousting contest in 1559. His death left France open to religious wars that eventually tore the country apart. At court sports served as important social events. According to Baldassare Castiglione the 16th century author of the “Book of the Courtier” it was the duty of the perfect courtier to gain proficiency in sporting activities. As a member of court the courtier should be proficient not only in jousting, but also in other popular and military-influenced sports such as archery, swordplay, fencing, and horse racing.
Castiglione also urged participation in running, hurdle jumping, swimming, and throwing. According to Castiglione the court lady was to stand by and cheer the athletic displays of her man. A courtier could also engage in contest with peasants. Castiglione warned however that a courtier should be sure that he would win. For instance it would be humiliating for a courtier if he were defeated by a peasant in a wrestling match. One of the most popular sports of the Renaissance among the upper classes was tennis. Tennis originated in medieval France and spread outward to other western European countries. Monarchs again set the fashion. French King Henry VIII owned seven rackets. He joined with Emperor Charles V in 1523 for a doubles match against the princes of Orange and Brandenburg.
The game of tennis was played differently in various regions. This of course tended to complicate the rules. In 1555 a monk named Antonio Scaino de Salo wrote a treatise on tennis. The treatise was an attempt to universalize the rules of etiquette, scoring, and play. This work resulted in tennis becoming more popular among merchants, students, and artisans. All of the forgoing would have had access to the book. At approximately the same time King James VI of Scotland, who was also James I of England, popularized the ancient sport of golf. Golf had originated in Scotland and was played not only by the king but also by his mother, Mary Stuart. Mary Stuart was also known as Mary, Queen of Scots. Golf's short-lived popularity among the English during the Renaissance was due to their desire to please the king. A genuine love for the sport of golf was still several centuries in the future.
Sports among the elite were both popular and played across national boundaries. On the other hand sports among the lower classes differed markedly from region to region. One example of the latter was “la soule”, which originated in 12th century villages of France. The game involved teams of men divided according to parish or perhaps to marital status. In the latter example those who were married might play against those who were unmarried. These teams then battled against one another and attempted to drive a ball forward and past a goalpost with the foot, the hand, or sticks of various kinds. The church had long sponsored events such as “la soule”.
However acceptance was not universal. Some clerics had called for its prohibition from the beginning. Some clerics even threatened excommunication, or expulsion from the church for those who engaged in a game that caused such passionate and competitive spirits to arise. To the minority, such passions should only be directed toward religion. Anything which aroused passion misdirected toward anything other than religion was considered sacrilegious. Soccer in England may have derived from la soule. Known as “football” in Europe, the game had a long legacy. A rumor had for years attributed the origin of soccer to a group of Englishman kicking a Dane's severed head amongst one another, a “Dane” of course being someone from Denmark.
Stool ball was another popular Renaissance game. It is said to have begun among milkmaids who threw balls toward their milking stools, trying to knock them over. An alternative version had the milkmaids hitting the balls with bats, with the same objective of knocking over their milking stools. By the Renaissance the game was associated with courtship and the Easter season. It later evolved into the English ball-and-bat games of rounders and cricket. In piazzas across Italy the Easter season brought on games including calico. In calico uniformed players kicked and hurled a leather ball filled with animal hair as a cheering crowd watched. The game’s players were restricted to high born men.
The possibility of disruption and violence in sports were the same problems that arose with gambling and dice games. These issues had always been of concern to authorities. Along with the objections of religious clerics described above, laymen during the Renaissance began speaking out against the "devilish pastimes". These objections were redoubled when sports were engaged in during the Sabbath. Sunday activities were widely regarded as being restricted to prayer and contemplation). Among the Protestant leaders Martin Luther was one of the few clerics in the 16th century who publicly supported sporting events. He was a particularly enthusiastic supporter of bowling, known as “Kegels”. In general however such amusements as maypoles, bearbaiting, and cockfighting were denounced as sins of idleness. They were usually severely restricted, if not outright prohibited. Enforcement of these rules was uneven however. Peasants often refused to stop participating in their favorite pastimes.
Wealthy people who lived during Renaissance times dealt with many of the same illnesses we have today. These included poxes, or viruses causing pustules on the skin. Also scurvy, which is a disease caused by vitamin deficiency. Then in addition to various cancers and fevers, there was rheumatism. Rheumatism is a series of diseases in which the muscles and joints are severely swollen and inflamed. There was also gout, which tough similar to rheumatism involved even greater swelling of the joints and traces of uric acid in the blood. Some aristocratic families such as the Medici family struggled against tuberculosis. Tuberculosis is a highly communicable disease of the lungs. Other wealthy individuals struggled to survive syphilis, which was a sexually transmitted disease widespread at the time.
During the Renaissance there were widespread epidemics of Malaria. Malaria was a bacterial disease often carried by mosquitoes. It was an especially deadly disease that plagued Italy. Those who had to undergo surgery often suffered unpleasant chronic skin ulcers and infections. These resulted in the need for continued surgery throughout their lives. For those who could afford remedial medical procedures life expectancy could reach fifty or sixty years. However the majority of people living during the Renaissance were not wealthy. So in addition to all of the medical afflictions described above, they also had to deal with persistent hunger, infection, overcrowding, and poverty. They were underfed and constantly in danger of being infected with a variety of diseases. More often than not their cries for help fell upon the deaf ears of the wealthy.
After the Black Death had ravaged Europe conditions improved marginally for the poor. Prices had stabilized, resulting in lower food costs, and wages had increased due to the shortage of labor. However by the 16th and 17th centuries the homeless and hungry became more numerous than before. This was due to severe inflation, with prices for staples, commodities, and foodstuffs once again rising faster than wage increases. For those who were wealthy avoiding illness was easier than for the poor. They were able to remain healthy because of a better diet than the poor, and the ability to move to summer cottages in the countryside. Disease was much less common in rural areas than in the squalid, infested, congested cities. Diseases therefore spread more slowly than in urban areas.
The rich often imported wines which were believed to help stave off disease. They also took long steam baths and had access to the newest medicines and treatments. On the other hand the poor did not even have doctors. Nor as was the case with the wealthy did they have dieticians to plan balanced, healthy meals for them. Even if they had such advice, they could not have afforded the food. The rich scorned the poor for eating trash, worms, insects, and grubs, which were insect larvae. People who lived in poverty were regarded by the rich as vagrants and criminals. They were treated as if they were less than human. However it must be admitted that very little of what the wealthy considered medicinal strategies and treatments made a lot of sense to the poor. This would include potions, powders, baths, and prescriptions. Both sides felt anger and resentment toward the other side (wealthy and poor). This achieved nothing other than to exacerbate the already massive gap between the rich and poor.
During the Renaissance physicians and laymen began to see many "new diseases". These were sicknesses that had not been discussed in the medical texts of the ancients. For instance after guns were introduced in the 14th century injuries inflicted by guns were at first treated with ineffective methods used in medieval times. By the 16th century discovering new ways of treating illness could make a physician very successful and wealthy. Among the new or newly recognized sicknesses was the "great pox", or syphilis, sometimes referred to as the "French Disease". "Great" distinguished this illness from smallpox, which was a contagious disease caused by a virus. Small pox produces severe skin sores. It was first discovered by the Arabs. Smallpox had become a serious epidemic in late 16th-century Europe.
Miners' diseases were ailments suffered by those who worked in underground mines. They were the first occupational afflictions described in detail in medical texts of the time. Epidemic typhus fever appeared suddenly in the early 16th-century wars. Typhus fever was a bacterial disease carried by body lice, which caused high fever. Scurvy and yellow fever were first described during the time of overseas conquest and colonization. Scurvy is a disease of the gums caused by a lack of vitamin C in the diet. During the Renaissance explorers regularly crossed the Atlantic to colonize the “New World”, which was the European term for the Americas. In an effort to prevent sailors from contracting the illness many ships started carrying limes. Citrus fruits are rich in vitamin C. During trips to the New World Europeans also started contracting yellow fever. This was a disease caused by a virus-carrying mosquito. The disease results in high fever and jaundice, or yellowing of the skin.
As new lands were "discovered" a wide variety of new plant species were studied by doctors and laymen alike. Many new medicines and treatments formed by using plants and minerals became popular. The success of these medicines caused many to question the conventional ideas and treatments used by doctors. A philosophical debate exploded among scholars on how diseases where classified, and what made a disease "new." Lack of complete records from the Renaissance period makes it difficult to know the numbers of people in the various social classes who were afflicted with disease. What is known is that regardless of social class 25 percent of all infants born never reached their second birthday. In addition, fevers of various kinds and duration were the main cause of death at all stages of life.
Even in the 16th century during epidemic years mortality rates of more than 10 percent were common in urban areas. Deaths caused by plague alone in the great plague years was widespread. During the decades of the 1520s, 1570s, 1590s, and 1630s deaths caused by the plague reached levels of 15 to 40 percent. These rates were as high as the levels witnessed during the Black Death in the mid-1300s. Wealthy people probably had a greater chance of survival because health practices during that time separated the rich from the poor in epidemic years. Overall the population of Europe began to grow after 1460 as more people moved from rural areas into urban centers. Yet among both urban and rural laborers illness caused greater poverty and an increased dependence upon assistance from the government and private charities.
Any number of factors could drastically change the economic conditions of a family. Included though not limited to, these factors could include plague, famine, illness, accident, an increase in the number of children, or the death of the mother in childbirth. Hospitals and other traditional charitable organizations were rarely able to help families in any meaningful way. Thus the later Renaissance period was characterized by an even greater gap between rich and poor.
From the 14th through the 16th centuries Renaissance Europeans were fascinated with death, as is reflected in the art of the time. Perhaps the reason was the recurring epidemics of bubonic plague. This was a highly contagious disease that unexpectedly swept a region (or continent) and killed large segments of the population. Greater awareness of death was expressed in new forms of funeral rites, mourning practices, and acts of remembrance. Accompanying these changes was a preoccupation with the “ars moriendi”, or the “art of dying”. This was a subject some authors began writing about extensively in the 15th century. The themes of physical decay and the triumph of death were central ideas in images. This was particularly evident in the tomb art of northern Europe. Of course every society must confront the inevitable loss of its members through death. The ways in which Renaissance Europeans faced the facts of death reveals much about their social values, religious beliefs, and overall health status.
The single greatest killer in Renaissance Europe was bubonic plague. During the Late Middle ages and the Renaissance it was known simply as the plague, or as the "Black Death". The unsanitary conditions of the Middle Ages permitted bacillus-carrying fleas to infest and infect black rats. When the rat died, looking for their next meal, the fleas then bit humans. The bite of the flea produced “buboes”. These were lumps the size of chestnuts (or walnuts), usually in the groin and the armpit. The infection came to be called the "Black Death" because it produced open sores that turned black. Bubonic plague arrived first in Sicily in December 1347 and spread up the Italian peninsula by the summer of 1348. It reached pandemic levels throughout continental Europe by the end of 1349. The term “pandemic” refers to the outbreak of disease over a huge geographic area, affecting large numbers of people. For instance in the 21st century Africa has a pandemic level of citizens suffering from HIV/AIDS.
Bubonic Plague was particularly severe in urban areas. The first wave of the plague took an enormous toll on the population. Contemporary estimates based on historical records are that between one-third and one-half of local populations died within those two years. Beginning with the second appearance of the plague in 1362, the disease became a standard, recurring them in the life of Renaissance Europe. The plague returned every ten to twelve years until the last major outbreak in London in 1661, with some episodes being more contagious than others. Europeans did not fully understand the causes of the plague. However based on observation they had deduced that certain practical measures were effective ways to reduce the spread of the disease. These measures principally included quarantine, or confinement of diseased individuals, and escape from infected areas. “Escape” generally meant leaving urban areas in favor of rural areas.
By the end of the 15th century wealthy urban dwellers fled every summer into the countryside. This was particularly the case for the wealthy of the Mediterranean basin. The rural areas the wealthy “escaped” to were areas where the plague was less easily spread. These practices gradually concentrated victims among the poor. After awhile local governments had formed harsh policies regarding those who suffered from the plague. By 1500 laborers and artisans were quarantined in plague hospitals. By the late 16th century the plague became a disease most strongly associated with poverty and poor hygiene.
Renaissance Europeans confronted other epidemic diseases as well. Most widespread among them was a strain of syphilis that acted like a virus. It first appeared in 1494 and was known as the "pox." The pox was a painful sexually transmitted venereal disease that killed its victims far more slowly than the plague. The onset of new, powerful, and incurable diseases like the "pox" resulted in a rise of charitable groups throughout Europe. The "pox" was blamed regularly on those outside of the immediate community. At some point the Italians, French, and Native Americans all were blamed for having caused and spread the disease. The plague had attacked all age groups and both sexes equally. Syphilis was of course confined to sexually active adults. Treatises on morality blamed the spread of the disease on prostitution. This resulted in the closing of state-run brothels in the later 16th century.
Europeans also commonly suffered from deadly respiratory illnesses such as tuberculosis. Men routinely fell victim to accidents on their business travels or while doing agricultural work. Many women died during childbirth. Mortality was extremely high for children below the age of two. This was primarily due to illness. In times of economic hardship, infanticide became a noticeable social problem. It could be that the practice increased simply as a method of limited family size. But the practice did bring about greater public attention as a criminal activity. Records from Italian courts show that infant girls were either killed or abandoned at roughly twice the rate of baby boys. Part of the reason for this was due to the fact that girls could not earn wages as high as those of boys. Girls also required more economic resources in order to fund the dowry required for marriage. Once children survived their critical early years they had a reasonable chance of reaching adulthood.
Renaissance Europeans had complicated views on death. Beliefs about the afterlife were a combination of Christian influences and classical Greek and Roman traditions. Perhaps the source that best reveals this cultural mix was “ars morendi”, or the “art of dying”. Beginning in the early 15th century writings in both Latin and vernacular languages started to teach a lay audience how a good Christian should approach impending death. These tracts stressed that death should be welcomed rather than feared since it was argued that death that gave meaning to life. In fact life on Earth was seen as preparation for the afterlife. Since anyone might fall ill suddenly the “ars morendi” writings emphasized the importance of making a "good death." The ill person was advised to confess to a priest. Also to forgive friends and family gathered around the deathbed. Also the individual was instructed to dispose of his or her personal belongings and wealth. Last one was also expected to make charitable donations or other financial compensation for past sins.
These popular literary works stressed acceptance of death and planning for it as a way to control the unpredictable timing of one's demise. Making a good death helped the individual gain entry into purgatory rather than be condemned to hell. In Renaissance Europe was perceived to be a region between heaven and hell. Visual imagery in northern Europe emphasized a darker sense of death than did the artistic representation of Italy and Spain. In France and Holland, the "dance of death," with its grim reapers and skeletons became popular in the fifteenth century. Northern European artists also developed a form of tomb sculpture that portrayed an image of the living person placed over a decaying corpse. This type of representation emphasized the belief that death triumphed over all persons regardless of wealth or status. It reminded viewers that the physical organisms of the body did not last as long as the soul.
During this period attitudes and beliefs drawn from ancient philosophers were once again taken up by Renaissance Europeans. These attitudes were generally interpreted in ways that supported traditional Christian beliefs. Christian teachings were mixed with ancient Stoic philosophy. Stoic philosophy emphasized the importance of fulfilling one's duty to the living. It also stressed disciplined behavior. Renaissance thinkers claimed that mourners should control their sorrow through self-discipline. Comfort for their loss could be taken in work, duty, literary expression, and the Christian faith. Throughout the 15th century humanists in particular supported more restrained forms of mourning for both women and men.
The testament or “will” was a legal document witnessed by a notary that gave instructions about a person's wishes after his or her death. The will allowed a person to express wishes about the distribution of personal property, as well as instructions about burial. The “ars morendi” suggested that drawing up a last will was an important step in planning for a good death. Despite this advice the vast majority of Europeans died without leaving a testament. Local customs therefore determined what would happen to their mortal remains and worldly goods. Normally wives were buried in the tombs of their husbands, and close relatives inherited property. Burial in one's local parish church or cemetery was the norm in the absence of other instructions.
Nonetheless many thousands of testaments survive from the Renaissance period. These legal documents provide important sources for examining the social values of the time. For instance studies of French and Italian urban wills reveal that more men than women left wills. In Italy during the 14th and 15th centuries wills made by women were mostly of widowers, whose husbands had already died. Nonetheless wills from women made up less than 30 percent of the historically surviving documents. The transmission of property in these wills varied according to geographical location, class, gender, religious beliefs, and time period. Over the course of the Renaissance era, many people left great sums of money to buy a tomb or fund a memorial mass to ensure that future generations would remember them. A special memorial mass was a Catholic religious service memorializing the deceased.
In some central Italian cities men favored making large donations to one institution rather than several smaller contributions to charities. Most of these institutions helped poor young girls find husbands. However in other cities there was an opposite pattern of giving. Men preferred splitting up their contributions into several donations. Women and in particular widows liked to give their money to nunneries. They bequeathed monies to these religious houses for women at a rate much greater than that of men. They may have done so because they were related to nuns in particular convents or because they wanted to support the institutions. Scholars have yet to evaluate all the information available in these documents.
Between 1300 and 1600 there were two main directions in the rituals surrounding death, mourning, and remembrance. The first trend was toward increased ceremony in funeral rites. This was especially pronounced in regions that remained Catholic after the religious reforms of the 16th century. This trend actually began in the early 14th century, predating the first outbreak of the plague in 1348. However high death tolls from the plague gave greater significance to new forms of ceremony and ritual. Wealthy merchants, landowners, and aristocrats spent ever larger sums on funeral processions. They purchased such items as an expensive cloth to drape the bier, which was the stand on which a coffin is placed. They also spent large sums of money for a rich outfit or suit of clothing in which to be buried. The largesse even extended to providing for a large number of paid mourners, multitudes of candles, and elaborate mourning clothes for relatives.
Funeral pomp declared one's social status and may have helped some accept their own mortality. The funerals of ordinary people like artisans, small merchants, and shopkeepers also became more elaborate. This new flamboyance was also expressed in larger numbers of commemorative masses said for the deceased. Such a mass was believed to shorten the stay in purgatory. The beautiful family funeral chapels decorated in new Renaissance style were part of this new emphasis on ceremony. The second major trend in death rites during the Renaissance period ran exactly counter to the first. After the rise of Protestantism in the 16th century a more reserved ceremonial style arose. This was predominantly seen in those regions of Europe that had rejected Catholicism.
Protestants had to develop new liturgical and ceremonial practices that better fit their beliefs. English Protestants tried to balance an appropriate, dignified display of social status without the pomp shown in Catholic ceremonies. Protestant preachers emphasized simple funeral ceremonies that focused attention on the afterlife. They also advised mourners to engage in only brief periods of grieving and rejected commemorative masses along with the concept of purgatory. By 1600 the ways in which Europeans buried and remembered their dead provided important clues about their deepest religious beliefs. These social and religious norms also helped distinguish Catholics from Protestants in everyday life [Encyclopedia.com].
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ABOUT US: Prior to our retirement we used to travel to Eastern Europe and Central Asia several times a year seeking antique gemstones and jewelry from the globe’s most prolific gemstone producing and cutting centers. Most of the items we offer came from acquisitions we made in Eastern Europe, India, and from the Levant (Eastern Mediterranean/Near East) during these years from various institutions and dealers. Much of what we generate on Etsy, Amazon and goes to support worthy institutions in Europe and Asia connected with Anthropology and Archaeology. Though we have a collection of ancient coins numbering in the tens of thousands, our primary interests are ancient/antique jewelry and gemstones, a reflection of our academic backgrounds.
Though perhaps difficult to find in the USA, in Eastern Europe and Central Asia antique gemstones are commonly dismounted from old, broken settings – the gold reused – the gemstones recut and reset. Before these gorgeous antique gemstones are recut, we try to acquire the best of them in their original, antique, hand-finished state – most of them originally crafted a century or more ago. We believe that the work created by these long-gone master artisans is worth protecting and preserving rather than destroying this heritage of antique gemstones by recutting the original work out of existence. That by preserving their work, in a sense, we are preserving their lives and the legacy they left for modern times. Far better to appreciate their craft than to destroy it with modern cutting.
Not everyone agrees – fully 95% or more of the antique gemstones which come into these marketplaces are recut, and the heritage of the past lost. But if you agree with us that the past is worth protecting, and that past lives and the produce of those lives still matters today, consider buying an antique, hand cut, natural gemstone rather than one of the mass-produced machine cut (often synthetic or “lab produced”) gemstones which dominate the market today. We can set most any antique gemstone you purchase from us in your choice of styles and metals ranging from rings to pendants to earrings and bracelets; in sterling silver, 14kt solid gold, and 14kt gold fill. When you purchase from us, you can count on quick shipping and careful, secure packaging. We would be happy to provide you with a certificate/guarantee of authenticity for any item you purchase from us. There is a $3 fee for mailing under separate cover. I will always respond to every inquiry whether via email or message, so please feel free to write.