The drumfire of pejoratives is impressive, but with the admission that it is actually possible for some women to excel men the pass has been sold.
How fully women of the dominant group escaped from the limitations of the Middle Ages is revealed not only by Brantome, but by such incidents as that of the ladies from the conservative Spanish court, who visited England. One of heir number, having been presented, fled in embarrassment at the frankness of the conversation of the ladies-in-waiting, and, such was the tale she told, that her compatriots decided hey could not come to court, and returned to Spain in haste.
But it was not simply that women were franker, better educated, more self-possessed; it was equally the case that men hemselves were changing, in as much as they were beginning to think of women in different terms, so that we begin to find books being written in defence and even praise of women. The first important work of this sort was Agrippa’s and appeared in 1542; More’s followed in 1560; and by 1613 we even find a book entitled “The Excellence of Women“, so far has the pendulum swung from medievalism. As part of this process we find emerging the idea that a man should not beat a woman. Thus, in “The Taming of the Shrew“, Katharina retorts: “An you hit me, you are no gentleman.” The concept of men as gentle towards women derives straight from chivalry though the age of chivalry had been closed for at least a century — and Katharina’s appeal to this standard shows vividly the new disposition to revive matrist standards. (We also find he Venetians betraying new interest in “il Zhentiluomo” in the early sixteenth century.) The point is of a certain historical interest, for the principal authorities assert that the idea that a man could beat his wife only came to be questioned in Charles II’s time.
As part of this general weakening of the feeling that pleasure was evil, we find the festivity accompanying marriage becoming more uninhibited. For the most colourful descriptions I have turned to reformers like Erasmus and Bacon, who wish to hold this merrymaking up as scandalous, and we must make an appropriate allowance for their puritanism. Though their intention is to castigate, the picture they draw breathes an ait of spontaneous enjoyment which enables us to understand the origin of the phrase, today so inapposite, Merry England, Erasmus complains of the “ridiculous ceremonies” in which people indulge at marriage as if it were “a light and laughable matter” for a couple to be wedded. But worse, from dinner-time to supper there are wanton dances, wherein the tender maiden may not refuse any man, and is forced to clasp hands (and in Britain even to exchange kisses) with drunken men, with others infected with loathsome diseases, and with ruffians who have come uninvited.
“Then comes a tumultuous supper, then dancing again, then the night cup. Even after midnight, scarce can the outworn bride and bridegroom seek their couch.”