Thursday, September 30, 2010

Status of women in sixteenth century France

‘Frenchwomen,’ said a critic, ‘are very devout in seeming, but in point of fact they are very light and very free. Every one of them, even if she be a courtesan, wishes to be treated as an honest woman, and there is no lady of bad fame who has not some objection to make to the morals of her neighbour. Their manners and talk are most agreeable, but one fault they have and that is avarice.’

Nuns, apparently, were worse. But then many were quite secular in their habits, certainly Henry IV of France enjoyed affaires with several, including Marie de Beauvilliers, abbess of Montmartre, and possibly several others. He did like to spread his favours.

Women often chose to enter a nunnery, considering this a better option than marrying a man they didn’t care for. And who could blame them since most marriages, and even being chosen as someone’s mistress, was often outside a woman’s control. Others were incarcerated in a religious house by a husband with an eye to finding a new wife, a danger which threatened Queen Margot in my new novel The Reluctant Queen, out today. This is the sequel to Hostage Queen and continues the story of Margot, as well as following the adventures of her husband’s mistresses, mainly Gabrielle.

Gabrielle d’Estrées’ one wish is to marry for love, but her mother sells her as a mistress to three different men before she catches the eye – and the heart – of Henry of Navarre, King of France. Henry promises to marry her, but Gabrielle’s difficulties have just begun . . . for Henry’s wife will only divorce him if he promises not to marry Gabrielle. Is the love of a king enough to secure her both the happiness and respectability she craves and a crown for their son as the next dauphin of France?

What struck me most about Renaissance women when doing my research was how independent and well educated many of them were. Margot was proficient in French, Italian, Latin, Greek, music and mathematics as well as her devotions. But it wasn’t only royalty and the aristocracy who believed in education. The bourgeoisie were also great advocates of such refinements. It was considered that an educated woman was better able to maintain her family’s health, raise her children well, make her husband content and keep a household in order. The reformation also encouraged education for girls so that they were able to read the scriptures for themselves and be spiritually closer to God.

Daughters were, however, kept very much on a tight rein. They were expected to walk behind their mothers, and were rigorously attended and chaperoned at all times. When travelling they were expected to ride en croupe behind a servant, observing the proprieties by clinging only to the pommel and not by putting their arms about the servant’s waist. Clearly that would have been beyond the pale. Nor were young ladies allowed to drink, although their mothers might be allowed to add a splash of Burgundy to give their water a little colour and flavour.

‘But their deportment,’ said an observer, ‘conveyed rather their good taste than their truth.’

So, a passion for women’s rights simmered beneath the surface did it? How wonderful! Men grumbled, of course at women’s independence, just as they do now. Nothing changes! They complained that their wives talked too much, stopping to gossip with passers-by in the street. They objected about their readiness to go alone to church or market, often being out and about for hours at a time, and ‘their husbands never daring to ask where they were.’

Marriage was less about love and more about wealth, position and power, which meant, as we romantic novelists know, plenty of opportunity for extra-curricular activity in the way of affaires.  Henry IV is reputed to have enjoyed at least 60 mistresses, and sired countless children with 11 of them, and probably many more we don’t even know of. He is said to have provided for them well and been a loving father. Nevertheless, he had great difficulty winning Gabrielle, and was greatly jealous of every man who looked her way. But with such a beauty who can blame him?

The proprieties and ritual of marriage began with ‘les accords’ when the happy couple joined hands in the presence of their parents. Next came the fiançailles when the bans were published. The parents, bride and bridegroom would visit the curé together to attend to this important matter. Then came the Epousailles which of course took place in church. The bridegroom was not allowed to enter without giving a considerable sum in alms, and guests were chosen to attend the wedding breakfast with an eye to the money they’d be likely to give. A bowl was handed round at dinner into which donations for a ‘nest-egg’ for the couple could be dropped.

One amusing rule I found for widows, was that they were obliged to wear a high necked dress, long cloak and a veil, and in Italy the authorities felt obliged to pass a law restricting their style as widows’ veils had become ‘dangerously attractive.’ You can’t keep a bad girl down.

1 comment:

Maggi Andersen said...

We think our society is too focused on sex? Is there nothing new?