Women absence is noted
When writing a novel placed in Italy at the height of the Renaissance, one must be careful with the physical presence of the characters. Not only was the household divided by gender, but also the neighborhoods and the cities. Males and females did not share the same place or the same life. Private and domestic spaces were given to women, while public and mastery places were reserved for men.
Urban centers were controlled by males; they were the governors, the judges, the police, the lawmakers, and the bankers. Jalouse husbands and overprotective fathers watched over their wives and daughters and restricted their movement.
As in modern days, travelers flocked to see the Italian cities of Rome, Florence, Venice, and others. And, like today, some left behind memoirs and notes from their journeys. That’s how we learned what we know today, and reading it with a critical mind, historians have managed to put together a fresco of women’s lives in medieval times.
Those travelers who walked the streets were appalled to see only a few women passing by, in a big hurry, wrapped up in mantles and vailed. There was a big difference from the streets of their European homelands.
Those women may be like a book character traveling to a forbidden world to fulfill a mission. And indeed, in Italian cities, there were spaces that women did not enter willingly: piazzas and guild halls.
But where could they go?
This depends on which social class they belong to.
Most noblewomen spent their day indoors, within their own aloud spaces, sometimes in a dark room in the back of the house, without windows, so as not to expose themselves to any passerby. Most time, they were alone with the children and/or other members of the extended family. Very few ventured outdoors and had almost no contact with their neighbors.
When she left the house, a younger woman was always accompanied by an older woman, hired to do this job by the husband, father, or male boss of the house. The place she went was often the church. Sometimes she was in a carriage, and sometimes she walked. When she took the street on foot, she wore platform shoes, sometimes as high as ten inches, called zaccoli or chapiney. And it seems that those shoes were not designed to protect the women’s skirts from getting muddy but to limit and restrict their movement. It makes sense; after all, it was a world dominated by men.
Working women couldn’t go further either without being harassed or threatened. The streets they had to travel were dangerous, and often they ran the risk of being robbed or rapped. But if a working woman ventured on the city streets, it was to provide for her family. In medieval times, women’s jobs in the cities were limited to small businesses or crafts like waving and needleworking, and the work was done at home. Very few occupations required leaving the household, including servants, nannies, and midwives.
Often in the most exposed spaces within a city, another group of working women had to spend much time outdoors. These were the lavandiere, or laundresses. They took their loads of dirty clothes to public fountains, most located in piazzas. Those places were mele exclusives; sometimes, the working women were caught between gang-driven stone fights or harassed males of all ages.
Finally, the only public spaces dominated by women were the courtesans’ and prostitutes’ quarters. Those were isolated neighborhoods, sometimes in the very center of the city, as was the case in Renaissance Florence. There, to be a male was to be a customer, and even so, a man often avoided being seen in the “whore towns,” as they were called. Also, women were the keepers of the brothels.
What’s in for a writer
The two public spaces where women could move with a higher degree of freedom – the churches and parishes and prostitutes’ quarters – are a generalization of the medieval Italian city. In other urban centers in Europe and worldwide, gender geography may differ in boundaries but not in concept: women’s movement must be controlled, dominated, and imposed. And we must remember that women were again confined to even tighter spaces when they retreated inside.
But why is this important, one may ask? Beyond being historically accurate, the writer has a chance to make light of women’s lives throughout the centuries. It is a great privilege to have the opportunity to educate someone who wants to learn (that’s why they are reading a historical novel in the first place). And for a writer, it is much more interesting when your heroin has to overcome some gender obstacles to achieve her goal, and ultimately. This makes for a great plot enhancement that can delight an enthusiastic reader.