The European Renaissance was a time of great social change marked by religious fracturing, overseas expansion and rapid population growth following the devastation of the bubonic plague.
The period also witnessed the development of a new cultural style in which Roman and Greek classics and values were revived and put to new use as guides for behavior. In her undergraduate course "Love and Sex in Renaissance Europe," associate professor of history Sharon Strocchia explores the changing sexual behaviors and social practices in Europe from 1400 to 1600, with particular emphasis on France and Italy.
"By examining the relationships formed around love and sex, we try to understand important aspects of the lives and mentalities of ordinary men and women in Renaissance Europe, and some of the complex ways in which late medieval society gave way to more modern forms of social life and governance," Strocchia explained.
Her students study works by historians as well as primary source materials such as literature, court cases and personal letters. Topics investigated include the affectionate and often ritualized play of courtship, the nature and meaning of marriage, domestic relations between husbands and wives, the control of prostitution and sex crimes, homosexuality and the relationship between sex and power. Strocchia found her students responded most favorably to stories about individuals that bring some kind of intimate narrative into focus, whether between a man and a woman or as part of a particular court case.
When Renaissance Europeans-especially the wealthy-talked about love and sex, they were also talking about power, status and class considerations, said Strocchia. They concerned themselves little about romantic love and the kind of individual choice now taken for granted. Marriage was very much a family-based decision.
However, one of the changes in the air-particularly among the aristocratic classes-was the notion of individual choice and "the idea of marrying more for love than for reasons of family status," Strocchia said. In practice, however, there was a greater element of choice in sexual partners than in marriage partners, especially for men.
"There's very much a double standard at work here," Strocchia said. "I think students were struck by just how deep and harsh that double standard was. Their notion of Renaissance society was that it was more progressive and more modern than they found it to be." For instance, she explained, the law allowed a middle-class woman in France or Italy to die at the hands of her husband if caught in the act of sexual infidelity.
"I think students were also surprised and somewhat troubled, in a productive way, by the discrepancies between precept and practice-between what people were told to do and what they actually did," Strocchia explained.
For example, she said, church teaching and secular law dictated that there be no sex outside of marriage. However, there was a large and varied class of prostitutes available, ranging from very high-level courtesans or mistresses devoted specifically to one man to state-run brothels and nonsanctioned streetwalkers.
Strocchia noted that while men were generally free to do what they wanted outside marriage in terms of heterosexual encounters, they came into contact with legal authorities at all levels when they had homosexual relationships. "I think what's also new about this period is that various kinds of state and church authorities attempted to enforce the laws against homosexual behaviors much more stringently than they had before," she said.
Observing that our own society is not free of these internal contradictions, Strocchia said, "I think students were able to gain a perspective on our day by looking at the past and this particular period.
"Our society is not the first to contend with shifts in gender roles or with changes in institutions like marriage and the family," she said.
Return to March 31, 1997 Contents Page