This research examines the fluctuating condition of women in European society from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. The plan of the research will be to set forth salient characteristics of the condition of women in three periods: the Renaissance (ca. 1350-1550), Reformation (ca. 1520-1600), and Enlightenment (ca. 1680-1780), and to discuss era-to-era changes that can be identified in social attitudes toward women.
But one must begin with the big picture. Between 1350, which takes in the Renaissance, and 1780, which takes in the Enlightenment, the single most important feature of women's social history that is worthy of note is the transition of prevailing social consciousness from belief in the power of magic, spirituality, and witchcraft to a belief in the power of reason and science as the prevailing method of explaining he condition of the world. In the earlier period there was by and large a socially uninterrogated idea that women could be witches and could affect their environment by way of magic, and vice versa. By the end of the later period, belief in the power of witches to influence reality was considered a superstition. If it was not the case that women's social status had not necessarily reached anything like equality with men's, at least state power was not enforcing burnings at the stake or trials by fire.
The influence of Malleus Maleficarum, published 1485-1490, appears to have been decisive for popular opinion about women in Europe during the Renaissance. Malleus formally sanctioned the Inquisition to "proceed to the just correction, imprisonment, and punishment of any persons, without let or hindrance" (Malleus xliv) all heretics, including witches.
Some well-born women of the Renaissance period exerted more direct independence. King (passim) explains that well-born widows and wives who more or less hid behind the authority of their husbands commissioned a variety of art works in the high Renaissanc...