In early modern Europe, as well as in most all other societies at the time, women were treated as being subordinate to men. This was not only a widespread common belief, but was often put into effect by law. Women could obtain almost no prestige without a husband, because they lived in “a world where organizational structure and public identity were associated exclusively with males. (Davis p.29)” This is the reason that marriages were arranged at the time. When they married, women gave their new husband a dowry, which could include money, land, or both. This dowry was given to the man because he is “taking” the woman to be his wife, and supporting her. Natalie Davis’ novel The Return of Martin Guerre, and Marvin Lowenthal’s translated version of The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln, give a good look at the role of women in early modern Europe.
Natalie Davis’ novel The Return of Martin Guerre takes place in the sixteenth century-a time when society was male dominated and women were subordinate to men. The role of woman in this society is shown through the character of Betrande Guerre. Betrande was a typical woman of the time and married young through an arranged marriage. These marriages were common at the time because women needed to be wed in order for them to have any status among the community. “There was a custom that allowed young men the freedom to try out their women?before marrying them. (p.20) ” This shows that society at the time was very much male dominated and that women were subordinate to them. So much subordinate that a wife was almost her husband’s property. “The women were most dependent on the good will of their husbands. (p.30)” This quote shows that the role of women in this society was limited “to the everyday life of the fields and the households?They performed the characteristically female tasks of hoeing, trimming the vines and cutting the grapes. (p. 30)” The heirs were always male children, “unless the family was unfortunate to have only girls. (p. 29)” Because prestige was associated with land, and the land was given to the male children, it was very hard and unlikely that a woman could obtain any of this prestige. This also demonstrates that being a woman was looked down upon and thought to be unfortunate. The fact that society was male dominated and prestige was given to males at the time, meant that a woman’s role was limited in Europe during the sixteenth century.
Marvin Lowenthal’s translated version of The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln is also a good example of the roles of women in early modern Europe. This novel takes place during the sixteenth century, in what is now Germany. The main woman character in this book is Gluckel of Hameln. She was wed through an arranged marriage, which was, as has been shown before, common practice at the time. This society believed that “providing your wife and children a decent livelihood is?a mitzvah-the command of God and the duty of man. (p.2)” This quote suggests that men in this society held a protective role and woman a helpless role rather than the submissive role portrayed in The Return of Martin Guerre. The men are the providers at this time because it was thought that women could not support themselves on their own. “The good wife, sitting at home, often thanked God when her husband turned up safe and sound. (p.7)” This quote demonstrates that women were dependent on their husbands because they were helpless without them. When Gluckel’s husband dies, she is left on her own to support her fourteen children. Gluckel demonstrates many non-female characteristics by practicing trade, opening a store of her own and promoting the welfare of her family. After many years of supporting herself and her family, Gluckel of Hameln falls into debt and decides to remarry. She says, “I was marrying a man who with his means and distinguished station could have aided my children and put them in the way of great wealth. (p. 229)” It is obvious that Gluckel realized she could not support herself and her children in a male dominated society. There was no way by which her and her children could obtain any wealth or prestige other than for her to re-marry. The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln is a good example of the typical role women held during early modern European history.
In early modern Europe, women did not have the roles they hold today. All government positions went to men and men also made community decisions. Land was both a sign of prestige and power; and since men were the heirs to land and wealth, women could not obtain either on their own. In this society the women worked around the house and property doing random chores, and some even owned stores of their own. They were thankful for their husbands providing for them and were always respective and grateful for that. As the novels The Return of Martin Guerre, by Natalie Davis, and The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln, by Marvin Lowenthal have shown; a woman’s position of power was never great and their role was submissive and helpless, put into effect by the male dominated society.
Davis, Natalie. The Return of Martin Guerre. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard
University Press. 1983
Lowenthal, Marvin. The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln. New York: Schocken Books.