Guest Post: Wife, Nun, or Whore: the Three Fates, by Kate Quinn

Isabella d'Este, Marchioness of Mantua, as Saint Justina of Padua, the favourite Saint of the Duchy of Ferrara
Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, as Saint Justina of Padua, the favourite Saint of the Duchy of Ferrara

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Wife, Nun, or Whore: the Three Fates

“My mother used to say that a woman has three choices. Wife, nun—or whore. And once you’ve chosen, there’s no changing it.”

That’s the start of an interesting conversation between the two heroines of my latest book, The Serpent and the Pearl: a novel of the Borgias. This rather bleak aphorism comes from Giulia Farnese, an well-born girl of Renaissance Rome who knows just what kind of narrow world she lives in.

It was a world that surprised me, when I first began researching the Renaissance and the role of women inside it. My previous three books were all set in ancient Rome, an era where better-born women had a surprising number of rights. Legally, the women of Imperial Rome had the right to keep some control over the property they brought with them in marriage, the right to initiate a divorce should their husband prove unsatisfactory, and the right to administer their own lives as they pleased if they were widows with multiple children. Socially Roman women mixed freely with men, they were immensely respected in their important role of bearing and raising free Roman citizens, and they were honored by the state on special religious holidays and with their own deities. Then I began researching the role of women for my next book, set about a thousand years later . . . and found that female rights had taken a decided step back, though time had marched forward.

Isabella d'Este, Marchioness of Mantua
Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua

Renaissance noblewomen of great rank sometimes managed to carve out a more independent lifestyle for themselves—ladies married to the rulers of great city-states, like Isabella d’Este, became patronesses of the arts in lively and cultured courts, and led a sophisticated social life. But that was a small percentage of the moneyed aristocratic class. Women born to the respectable but not ruling classes, like my heroine Giulia Farnese, simply didn’t go anywhere. Unmarried girls were kept firmly sequestered in the house to guard their virtue; the only place they might go to see and be seen was church. Even after marriage, Renaissance matrons were expected to keep to their own households, their lives a round of domestic duties, the occasional family party, and of course, more church.

And that’s if you were lucky enough to get married in the first place—if you weren’t, your life was nothing but church. The Renaissance was an era of dowry inflation, a vicious cycle where large families often encouraged only one son of the batch to marry and have children, so that family assets could be preserved whole rather than shared out between multiple heirs. The result was that there were far too many girls competing for just a few bridegrooms; if a girl didn’t have an illustrious name or spectacular beauty to attract attention, she would need a hefty dowry to stand a chance of attracting anyone suitable. Thus, even wealthy families found it hard to marry off more than one daughter—and then the spare daughters were frequently dumped in convents to become nuns, whether or not they had any religious vocation. The result was a lot of resentful nuns who treated their convents more as sorority houses than places of worship, living off allowances from their families, keeping pets, getting regular gossipy visits from their married sisters, and barely bothering to go to prayers at all.

The third career option was prostitution—and the courtesans of the Renaissance were indeed famous. Another side effect of the dowry-inflation vicious cycle was a greater quantity of bachelors among the moneyed classes—if they weren’t supposed to marry and thus divide the family wealth, they looked for female companionship in other ways. Renaissance Venice boasted almost as many courtesans as nuns, and these women were frequently famous for their wit and their learning as well as their beauty. But such a lifestyle was precarious, dependent on the favors of wealthy men, and on how long a woman’s youth and beauty lasted.

However, if “Wife, Nun, or Whore” sounds like a very black-and-white set of fates, there are always shades of gray hiding in between—and when Giulia Farnese makes that bleak observation about her possible trinity of futures, she’s got someone to correct her.

“Things never turn out as neat and final as that. Nuns become whores, whores become wives, wives become nuns . . . whichever we are, we all get by.”

That’s Carmelina, Giulia’s household cook, and as a working-class woman, she ironically has more freedom than a well-born girl like her mistress. Women born into family trades had the opportunity to acquire useful skills beyond embroidery: a weaver’s daughter could very well help with the family shop, marry another weaver, help in her husband’s business, and even continue to manage it after his death. Carmelina takes an even more precarious route: she’s a girl born to a family of cooks, who learns to cook as a child, and when she can’t get married (her prettier sister got the dowry) she gets a position as cook to support herself. She’s a working woman who has managed to carve herself a place in a man’s world; neither wife nor nun nor whore—and such women can always be found, determinedly making a life for themselves around the edges, even in eras with female roles as rigid as those of the Renaissance.

Carmelina and Giulia are destined to be unlikely friends in “The Serpent and the Pearl,” and they owe much of that friendship to their struggle to get beyond the roles life has assigned them. Carmelina, the spinster daughter who got a job rather than be shunted off to a nunnery. Giulia Farnese, spurned by her husband, who reached for something more than the role of wife. Do they succeed?

Read and find out!

Cheers,

Kate Quinn
Author of historical fiction
“The Serpent and the Pearl”
“Empress of the Seven Hills”
“Daughters of Rome”
“Mistress of Rome”
www.katequinnauthor.com

Beth von Staats

is the owner and administrator of QueenAnneBoleyn.com. The author of "Thomas Cranmer in a Nutshell", Beth specializes in writing magazine articles, online historical articles, short stories, and flash fiction.

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