My guest is Elizabeth Loupas, author of several sumptuous historical novels, full of court intrigue and danger. She shares the reality of love, sex, and power of women in renaissance period.
We love to watch The Borgias and The Tudors and The Other Boleyn Girl and every richly-costumed, intrigue-and-romance Renaissance drama we can find. We (well, I) even watch Reign, which is way more fantasy than history but does have a lot of pretty people and gorgeous (if inaccurate) costumes. We read thick, luscious books set in the Renaissance, and go to Renaissance Faires. There’s just something about swanning around in long silk dresses and glittering jewels, living in palaces covered with magnificent art and honeycombed with peepholes for spies, nibbling on honeyed cakes and hummingbirds’ tongues and playing games of love, sex and power with kings and dukes.
Wait. It wasn’t really like that?
No, it wasn’t. Even royalty and noblewomen didn’t live the glamorous lives we imagine. And the vast majority of women—the storekeepers, artisans, washerwomen, farmers’ wives and nuns—lived lives so far from what we think when we see the word “Renaissance” that they might as well have been on a different planet.
Love, sex and power? When you have the church on one side thundering about the sin of Eve and the inherent evil of all women, and men on the other side controlling everything you do whether you like it or not, love is hard. Sex is harder. Power is the hardest thing of all.
But women managed. Women always manage.
What women of the Renaissance thought of as “love” wasn’t the same thing as what we think of as “love” today. Marriages were business arrangements, even among the peasant, artisan and merchant classes, and parents pretty much always chose their children’s spouses. Marrying for “love”—meaning physical attraction or emotional attachment—was considered unseemly. Love was something that flowered in a woman’s heart after she was married, and it was a matter of duty and dignity and affection for her children. Scripture instructed men to “love” their wives, and wives to “submit to” and “reverence” their husbands.
Even so, women did love their husbands. The number of marriages made when the woman was already pregnant tell us that was true.
And that brings us to sex. Sex in the Renaissance was wonderful (as sex has been since time began), pleasurable (ditto), and deadly dangerous.
To begin with, there was no reliable contraception—women used everything from squeezed lemon halves to magic spells, with predictably uncertain results. Pregnancy outside marriage meant the girl was bundled off into a forced marriage, outcast from her family and left homeless, or turned into a whore or a drudge. Abortifacients existed, but they were about as reliable as the contraceptives, and in some cases were deadly poisons. Pregnancy outside marriage for a woman of the royal or noble classes was unheard-of—which doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, just that it was covered up with vicious efficiency.
So much for love and sex. Did women in the Renaissance (barring the occasional outlier like Elizabeth I or Catherine de’ Medici) really wield any power of their own, or did they grasp what crumbs they could from the men they belonged to—their fathers, brothers, or husbands?
The surprising thing here is that women in the lower classes—peasants, artisans and merchants—actually had more personal power than most of their royal and noble sisters. Women in these classes (and I hate that I keep talking about classes, but that’s how it was behind all the dazzle of the Renaissance) brought their own labor and household-management skills to the marriage, and this gave them value as both workers and teachers of the next generation. Personal value translated into personal power, at least to some extent. It’s in the lower classes that one finds widows and single women actually living and earning independently.
Royal and noble women had less freedom. Their persons and their property belonged to their birth families, and after marriage, to their husbands. It’s here that you find the quintessential “power behind the throne” sort of power for women. In some cases, what they whispered in their husbands’ ears carried weight and authority. In most cases, sadly, it did not.
Well, the Spanish conquistadores did bring cacao beans back from the New World around the middle of the sixteenth century, ground them up, and made a bitter coffee-like drink out of them. Needless to say, nobody liked chocolate much until some unknown person (thank you, unknown person!) thought of sweetening it and mixing it with milk. Even so, it was a closely guarded secret in the Spanish court for at least a hundred years. So you didn’t live in the highest echelons of the Spanish court? Too bad. No chocolate for you, even if you were Queen Elizabeth.
Ah yes, the glamorous Renaissance. Love you had to struggle for, sex that could kill you, and personal power that was pretty much nonexistent unless you were a very lucky artisan-class widow or could find a way to twist your nobleman-husband around your sweetly submissive little finger. And you know, some of that sounds mighty familiar to some of us women in the twenty-first century.
At least today—and with Valentine’s Day tomorrow—we have lovely, lovely chocolate.
Elizabeth Loupas returns with her most ambitious historical novel yet, a story of intrigue, passion, and murder in the Medici Court...
April, 1574, Florence, Italy. Grand Duke Cosimo de’ Medici lies dying. The city is paralyzed with dread, for the next man to wear the red lily crown will be Prince Francesco: despotic, dangerous, and obsessed with alchemy.
Chiara Nerini, the troubled daughter of an anti-Medici bookseller, sets out to save her starving family by selling her dead father’s rare alchemical equipment to the prince. Instead she is trapped in his household—imprisoned and forcibly initiated as a virgin acolyte in Francesco’s quest for power and immortality. Undaunted, she seizes her chance to pursue undreamed-of power of her own.
Witness to sensuous intrigues and brutal murder plots, Chiara seeks a safe path through the labyrinth of Medici tyranny and deception. Beside her walks the prince’s mysterious English alchemist Ruanno, her friend and teacher, driven by his own dark goals. Can Chiara trust him to keep her secrets…even to love her…or will he prove to be her most treacherous enemy of all? EXCERPT
Elizabeth Loupas was born and grew up in Rockford, Illinois. She has lived in New Mexico, New Orleans, North Carolina, Chicago, Dallas, and Austin, and now makes her home halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth, on the Elm Fork of the Trinity River.
She hates housework, cold weather, and wearing shoes. She loves animals, gardens, and popcorn. Not surprisingly she lives in a state of happy barefoot chaos with her delightful and faintly bemused husband (the Broadcasting Legend™), her flower and herb gardens, her popcorn popper, and two beloved beagles. Find Elizabeth: Website, Goodreads, and Facebook