As the culture of the Middle Ages declined and Early Modern period
characterized by a revival of humanistic ideals of the Renaissance commenced, the society of Western Europe underwent many changes. Different attitudes emerged concerning cultural values, and the medieval feudal way of life that has often been interpreted as being antiquated and obsolete gave way to more modern political, economic, and social systems. The question still remains, however, of exactly how women, an often underrepresented part of society, were affected by these so-called modernizing changes.
The scope of this research is to basically address this question and examine the manner in which these dramatic cultural differences influenced the experiences of women in Western European society. By studying the changing cultural attitudes towards women and the variations in a woman’s status specifically in the Lowland, Germanic, and Italian regions over the course of the Middle Ages, it becomes clear that many of the cultural changes of the later middle ages and early modern period were indeed to the detriment of a woman’s role in society.
Specifically, the thesis compares and analyzes the changing roles that women could employ economically, politically, socially, and religiously. According to other studies conducted on this subject by scholar Joan Kelly “the kind of economic and political power that supported the cultural activity of the feudal noblewomen in the 11th and 12th centuries had no counterpart in Renaissance Italy.”1 And regarding political status, historians Jo Ann McNamara and Suzanne Wemple maintain that “the extensive powers exercised by women were…largely derived from the rather irregular powers held by the great families of the age,” a phenomenon that was reversed with the Renaissance era emphasis on institutionalizing government.
“Shifting Experiences” is essentially an investigation into exactly how a woman’s power and place in medieval society was to become greatly compromised as the closing of the Middle Ages approached the opening of the Renaissance. By examining such secondary sources as those mentioned above, as well as primary source documents relating to the lives of various saints and aristocrats, this research is an exploration of the specific ways in which the economic role, political position, and religious characteristics associated with women in the Germanic, Italian, and Lowland medieval cultures evolved over time.