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“Did Women have a Renaissance?”

- Understanding Joan Kelly’s famous question and the thirteenth century sadboi.

Writing by Bella Henricks

In 1984, historian Joan Kelly published an essay in Women, History & Theory: The Essays of Joan Kelly titled “Did Women have a Renaissance?” She argues that women not only missed out on the political, social, and intellectual upheaval of Renaissance Italy, but that they lost freedom and power gained in the Medieval Period. In her essay, she uses the poetry of Dante and his contemporaries Petrarch and Vittoria Colonna to demonstrate how men changed the way they wrote about women. Women went from being romantically revered in Medieval literary and chivalric traditions to having “no meaningful, objective existence” in Italian Renaissance poetry; the poems became about the poet, their big bundle of feelings, and how the ethereal and sometimes dead female subject helped them understand themselves better. It will be reassuring to no one that the ‘sadboi’ has been thriving since the 1270s.

Kelly argues that in Medieval Italy, upper-class women could in some instances gain significant political, social, and economic power under more feudal structures. More importantly, they were often able to hold onto it. Literary traditions in the Medieval Period established the notion of “courtly love”; women were the objects of veneration and devotion from potential chivalrous suitors who pursued a very romantic (wink wink) relationship with said women.

When Italy transitioned into the Renaissance, Kelly argues that the “consolidation of genuine states, the mercantile and manufacturing economy… and cultural expression” that defines this period of history held women back. New social structures, cultural norms, and post-feudal politics led to women being shut out of most public spheres and forced back into dependency on men. Italian Renaissance women of noble status were deprived of relationships of a romantic and sexual nature and the freedom to commit adultery which many had been afforded in the centuries before. They were also educated differently than during the Medieval period; the birth of Renaissance humanism and resurgence of classical literacy and learning sank women even further under patriarchal ideas of male domination, female asexuality and what Kelly describes as the “misogynous bias” of classical culture. The Italian Renaissance brought incredible advancement for men’s politics, economics, culture and society, but simultaneously reinforced the subordination of women and their relegation to the domestic sphere that had not strictly been the norm in the period before.

Alongside the diminution of women’s power, influence and liberty, Kelly identifies literary trends that characterised women as chaste, passive, asexual and often almost irrelevant in the romantic equation. In the 2020s, we define a ‘sadboi’ as: “A young man who is open about his emotions, especially his feeling sad about failed relationships and unrequited love and channels his sadness artistically.” Kelly’s essay identifies these key elements of sadboi-ism in the works of Dante in particular. She argues that his poetry, and that of his contemporaries, is “narcissistic”, in which “the beloved may just as well be dead” as the poetry is so excessively preoccupied with the emotional experience of the poets themselves. She argues that the ‘love’ in this poetry is so devoid of a romantic voice and active female subject that it “casts off sexuality”. For Dante, women simply exist to evoke his own experiences and emotions that he can reflect on, and then bore everyone else with. This type of masculine literature that dominated Renaissance literature further eroded the cultural importance of women. It also established a creative persona that has endured into the twenty-first century, for better or for worse (but probably for worse).

Kelly’s essay inspired a new way of looking at the past and understanding the importance of exploring the non-male experience to create a more complete historical picture. As she so succinctly puts it: “All the advances of Renaissance Italy, its proto-capitalist economy, its states, and its humanistic culture, worked to mould the noblewoman into an aesthetic object: decorous, chaste and doubly dependent - on her husband as well as the prince.”

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Scott Henricks
Scott Henricks
Nov 25, 2021

Thought provoking and challenging article !

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