Between 1471 and 1700, nearly 2,700 advice books for women appeared in Italy alone. "The range of advice was wide indeed and by no means limited to sex," according to Rudolph M Bell, an American historian who has summarised the best of them in this unusual volume. The books, mostly from the 16th century, covered everything from medical matters to the best positions for sex. Friar Bartolomeo de Medina, a Spanish Jesuit whose work was translated into Italian in the 1580s, warned that intercourse with the woman on top was not only sinful but inhibited conception. Women who wanted sons were advised to choose husbands with large testicles, although it is hard to see how this advice could be carried into effect in God- fearing households.
Nor were these volumes addressed solely to women. Reflecting in various degrees the misogyny of the church - many of the authors were priests or monks - they contain plenty of advice to men with unruly wives, including instructions to confiscate their clothes and jewels to prevent them venturing out alone. Brother Cherubino of Siena provided dozens of rules for married couples, exhorting them to avoid having sex in church, open fields and public squares as though this kind of licentiousness was common in Renaissance cities. Whether or not these fears were exaggerated, Bell's account of them creates a highly-coloured portrait of everyday life at a moment when a renewed interest in Classical culture co-existed with a dependence on folk remedies which had been handed down for generations.
The advice manuals drew on, and frequently plagiarised, authors such as Hippocrates, Galen and Aristotle. But they also provided lists of herbal concoctions which would not be out of place in a 20th-century New Age handbook, demonstrating an enduring human capacity to embrace apparently contradictory regimes of science and magic. Inevitably, the processes surrounding conception and childbirth took up many pages.
Michele Savonarola, grandfather of the famous ascetic, wrote extensively on these subjects, advising pregnant women to eat plenty of veal, beef, kid, milk-fed lamb and mutton - a prescription which indicates the affluence, as well as the literacy, of the female readers he was addressing.
They should avoid venison, quails and fish, and too much sex, he instructed: "And you, male reader, in knocking on the door, be careful that you don't move the foetus inordinately." If a husband was unable to follow Savonarola's advice to abstain from intercourse, he should proceed "with suave strokes and not too many of them". Savonarola, who studied medicine in his native city of Padua, was at least a doctor, even though this was no guarantee of anatomical accuracy. One of the most shocking things to emerge from Bell's book is the sheer ignorance of women's bodies displayed by some of these so-called experts, many of whom had never dissected anything more complicated than a sheep.
Even when a doctor was summoned to assist a woman in childbirth, he did not see his patient in the flesh or apply any remedies himself. "It was normal in a lifetime of practice for a physician never to see or examine the genital organs of a female patient, whether pregnant or not," says Bell. A prolific medical author, Friar Mercurio, recorded with pride that he had once examined the genitals of a virgin corpse at the University of Bologna. Yet a woman's life might depend on the advice, offered from a next-door room, of just such a physician. In one horrifying passage, Bell describes the detailed instructions offered to midwives on dismembering a dead foetus; an accompanying woodcut, illustrating the instruments she might use for the job, is a stark reminder of the crude surgical methods which were practised on conscious patients.
The advice books had lots to say about male impotence, a subject which seems to have exercised Renaissance Italian men as much as it does contemporary seekers after the wonder-drug Viagra. Bell points out that sufferers were eager to discover external causes for the problem, leading them to trust authors like Girolamo Menghi, a Franciscan friar who, somewhat alarmingly, offered exorcism as the most efficacious remedy. Giovanni Marinello's altogether more practical advice included a recommendation that the patient should sip spiced goat's milk - and tell dirty jokes to attractive women.
So who bought and read these manuals? The fact that most of them appeared in Italian, rather than Latin, suggests an audience much wider than the monks, nuns and aristocrats familiar with that language. In the late 1500s, around a third of the male population of Venice seems to have been literate, although the figure drops to 13 per cent for women.
Whether or not this figure is comparable with other Italian cities, authors like Lodovico Dolce, one of the first professional writers to take advantage of relatively cheap printing methods, addressed his work specifically to female readers. Dolce wrote eloquently about the joys of marriage but a darker picture emerges from Bell's researches; a directory published in Rome in 1601, listing the city's charitable institutions, included the addresses of several shelters which took in battered wives.
Inevitably, the impression left by Bell's wry, elegant survey is of a society where women were very much second-class citizens. Yet their subjugation was not achieved without a degree of resistance, personified in this volume by the work of a Venetian author, Moderata Fonte.
Published in 1600, Fonte's dialogue in defence of women includes a spirited account of the advantages of widowhood. "What, me remarry?" demands one of her characters. "I'd rather drown than submit again to any man." Interestingly, the authors of the advice manuals concur, recognising the relative freedom enjoyed by women whose husbands had predeceased them. For widowers, though, they all agree there is only one sensible course of action: find a new wife as quickly as possible.Reuse content