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Renaissance Careerists: How Ladies Became Spies and Abbesses, and Which Professions were Prestigious
Renaissance Careerists: How Ladies Became Spies and Abbesses, and Which Professions were Prestigious

Almost all women have worked in the past. During the Renaissance, commoners earned money for a living by working as laundresses, cooks, dishwashers, midwives, nannies, maids, tradesmen, seamstresses, and serving women. But such work was not for noble ladies. They made a career of a different kind - fortunately, they could afford it.

Ladies of the court

The palace was served not only by male nobles. Queens and princesses (as well as duchesses and their daughters) had their own ladies of the court. They held various positions and received salaries and gifts for the performance of their duties. Since the actual work with their hands lay on them a little, from our time it may seem that the work was not dusty. However, everything depended on the mistress.

Queens and duchesses supported their ladies of the court

The queen or duchess could demand that the waist be scared or worn some not very comfortable structure in clothes, not let the ladies leave from early morning until late at night, travel to places where there is a bed and a comfortable chair only for the queen (and the ladies will have to squeeze and sleep on just about anything) and even allow yourself to let go.

In addition, unlike men, a woman at court could not hope to make a real political career - although she had a chance to gain political weight. Some of the ladies of the court also did not shy away from paid espionage on other states, and this work also made it possible to find a good groom.

Portrait of a lady of the court made by the court painter (Lavinia Fontana)


One of the serious chances for self-realization in the Renaissance (as in many other eras) was the monastery. There, a woman could receive a good education, including a professional one, and make a career up to the position of abbess - abbess of the monastery. Each monastery was something like a city, with its own economy, its own cultural life, often with its own hospital and school, where you could arrange your own order. In addition, the abbesses had some political influence and could actively participate in the public life of their region.

Female artists

This is the profession in which the girls went, who stood somewhere in the middle position between the ladies and the maids. As a rule, daughters of artists, owners of their own workshops, became artists. They learned from their fathers and could do practice with their father's acquaintances - there was no other way in the world, since an attempt to walk the path of an artist in the usual way, appearing from the outside and becoming an apprentice, even if the girl was accepted, would turn out that she had to sleep side by side with other apprentices, guys, and they would hardly have led here courteously. A woman could also become an artist in a monastery, like the legendary Plautilla Nelly, but then she could not reach the highest point of this career - a position at the court.

Self-portrait of Katherine van Hemessen, court painter of Maria of Austria

A striking example of an artist who managed to get a profession thanks to the fact that she herself was born into the artist's family is Katherine van Hemessen. She was officially a member of the artists' guild and had apprentices. She is considered the author of the painter's first self-portrait at work; all other, later similar self-portraits are imitations of her. As for the portraits of other people, they differed in that Katerina never painted a person's gaze facing the viewer.Katherine's patroness was Queen Mary of Austria, one of the most prominent political figures in Europe, and after the death of Queen Katherine was paid a generous pension. Career did not cross out van Hemessen's personal life - she was married to an organist musician.


Many Renaissance women were fond of herbal medicine. If a commoner risked incurring suspicion of making Vedic potions, then the lady could sprinkle quotations from ancient authors and refer to monks who were engaged in medicinal business, who also used herbs. Princess Anna of Sweden, sister of the Polish king Sigismund III, experimented with medicinal herbs and grew them with her own hands. The courtiers willingly turned to her for help. And the famous Caterina Sforza, having lost all her property, lived off the fact that she made medicines for sale, resorting not only to herbs, but also to her knowledge of alchemy (its practical part).

Caterina Sforza became famous for her war with Caesar Borgia, during which she herself took up arms, but in the end she had to live on her skill in making medicines

Sophia Brahe, the sister of the astronomer Tycho Brahe, who helped him in drawing up horoscopes, was also engaged in medicinal plants. She herself was well versed in astronomy, but Europe was not yet ready for a woman scientist, and for most of her contemporaries, Sofia was precisely a medicine from which it was possible to buy various herbs and medicines based on them. However, this profession did not feed her well - probably because she, as a woman, was not a member of the pharmacists' guild and could not be considered a real doctor.

Writers and poetesses

In general, women have always been inclined to take up writing - as soon as they were allowed to study. The Renaissance was no exception; in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, many poetesses were published and quite a bit fewer women writers. The poetry of the English aristocrat Mary Sidney was highly valued - almost on a par with Shakespeare - by her contemporaries. She also became the record holder for the number of poetic dedications - and not in the sense of those written by her, but written to her. Unless, of course, you take queens.

Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, was a very popular poet of her time

Sometimes the poetess had to be more than a poetess. So, Veronica Gambara, one of the legendary Italians of the Renaissance, not less than sonnets, became famous for the fact that, being a widow, she organized a successful defense of her city against the armed claims of a neighboring duke. However, during the Renaissance, such facts were not at all unique. Many women became famous precisely for the well-organized armed resistance, including, for example, the Russian princess Anastasia Slutskaya. At the same time, although they were honored as heroines, women were not allowed to enter a military career in principle.


Many women during the Renaissance were multilingual. Men, however, for sure, but there was always a need for good literary translations, and women could do them on an equal basis with men. The same Mary Sidney went down in history not only as a poet and playwright, but also as a translator of literary works.

The girl's music teacher was safer than the teacher

Music teacher

Although many Renaissance ladies knew how to play musical instruments, it was considered obscene to live this craft. Except in one case: a woman of good origin, but in a difficult situation, could be hired to teach playing musical instruments to girls from noble families. Sometimes these women also wrote music for classes, but, unlike medieval composers, not a single Renaissance songwriter went down in history.

At least none of these professions poisoned life, even if the woman did not have to count on serious fees or great fame. What professions did women choose about 150 years ago, and what were they most often sick with? - everything is relative.

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