Woman’s Role in Renaissance Society
When viewing the place of women in society, it is common to view their struggle for equality as a long, gradual ascension culminating in their liberation in the twentieth century. Michael Kaufman in an article entitled "Spare Ribs: The Conception of Woman in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance" (Soundings Summer, 1973) asserts that the place of woman actually declined with the advent of the Renaissance: The forces that gave rise to the Renaissance radically transformed most aspects of English economic and social life. The change from an agrarian community to an urban marketplace helped to accelerate and extend woman's subjugation (150).
The conception of woman in medieval literature is split between the clergy's portrayal of her as a seductive sinner or the aristocratic courtly love tradition in which she serves to transform earthly love into spiritual sublimity. According to Kaufman, this medieval view represents only a very small, male, aristocratic population (3%); her actual situation was better than the literature would indicate. But that gap narrowed during the Renaissance and as the "medieval agricultural economy . . . yielded to Tudor mercantile capitalism, . . . woman became an economic cipher and social possession" (141).
It seems that only Queen Elizabeth, shrewd and headstrong, could provide a female presence strong enough to counter certain aspects of a male-dominated Renaissance culture. The Elizabethan sonnet provides a paradoxical example of woman's inferior status. Although she has all the idealized virtues--"meekness, constancy, beauty, and, of course, chastity" (155), the sonnet itself functions as a measure of "masculine vitality" (156). It is the male who emerges as dynamic and complex. Kaufman points out that it was Marsilio Ficino's translation of Plato into Latin which helped to reconcile the two contradictory views of woman of the medieval period (adulterous love of woman versus ascetic love of God). If true love is seen as a progression from the body to the soul, the natural to the divine, the value of woman is found in her ability to inspire that ascension.
No writer better embodies this vision than Petrarch, the fourteenth century Italian scholar and poet who wrote a series of 366 poems to immortalize his unrequited love for Laura which lasted for 25 years. In truth, there are two Laura's--the idealized woman found in Petrarch's poetry and the real Laura, a married woman who had eleven children and did little to encourage her passionate suitor.
Although Petrarch uses conventional forms, his love is concrete, growing out of sensual desires. Morris West in a biography entitled, Petrarch and His World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963) says that "Laura's steady resistance to his (Petrarch's) desire produced poetry as the resistance in an electric filament produces light" (82). Petrarch loved Laura as a woman, a goddess and a Muse and he believed that...