- How To Do It: Guides to Good Living for Renaissance Italians
Imagine a book where the author summarizes with long paraphrases and chatty informality the way renaissance men and women read “advice manuals.” Imagine that he discovers that the renaissance was really a much nicer time than polemical feminists and cultural historians have argued—aside from a bit of unpleasantness—largely a warm and friendly era with good fathers and happily retiring mothers who loved each other and their children (or at least tried to do so) much as “we” more down-to-earth people might expect. Imagine as well that renaissance people were not all that unlike “us,” reading “advice manuals” to learn how to live better, even if they did have some pretty “bizarre” ideas. Finally imagine that all this is written in a style that mimics advice manuals themselves, as if the author was writing an advice manual on how to read renaissance “advice manuals,” a conceit pointed out to anyone who might have missed it (pp. 280–81 including a self-critique of that conceit). Imagining all this you will have a pretty good sense of what this book purports to be.
After a brief introduction and first chapter that argue that “advice manuals” were a significant component of the early book trade designed for a market of literate middle and upper middle class men and women anxious to learn from them how to live life, Bell’s book is organized around his vision of the life stages where these manuals were most pertinent and useful. Conception, therefore, opens the discussion in chapter two with a quick overview of advice to prospective parents on how to produce boys rather than girls; the ideal times, modes and places of intercourse for procreation; how to deal with male and female reproductive dysfunctions; the meaning of menstruation; and finally how to know if a woman was pregnant. Chapter three deals with pregnancy and childbirth. Again ascertaining the sex of the future child looms large, but even more advice focused on the dangers of childbirth. Childhood dominates chapter four, where Bell argues that historians have overestimated the importance of sending children away from home to nurse in the renaissance. Rather he concludes that most children were nursed at home, attacking in the text and more aggressively in the notes those who have been taken in by feminist arguments based on weak evidence. He also argues that children were treated with more love and attention than has been assumed, rejecting those who have suggested that the renaissance ideal was to break childish wills. Chapter five exams renaissance “adolescence,” attempting briefly to define what the term meant and looking at the way advice manuals problematized it. Unfortunately, Bell does not really consider the impact of gender and class differences on this presumed stage of [End Page 447] life and, although he realizes there is not a complete parallel, tends to see it as analogous to modern adolescence. Thus he misses much of the complexity of the renaissance situation, e.g. the fact that women especially at upper class levels were married very quickly once they reached puberty (and were deemed ready for their primary adult responsibilities—maternity and childrearing) or that for males of the upper classes this period stretched on until their late twenties and beyond, while artisans could gain adult status much earlier. This chapter ends with an optimistic vision of how marriages were arranged where it seems that fathers often took the advice of manuals to marry their children to spouses who would make loving mates, overlooking their financial and familial interests to do so.
The last two chapters consider respectively marital relationships and the issue of why women did not write “advice manuals”. As one might expect given the generally rosy picture that Bell has drawn, he finds that although there was no sense of equality in marriage, renaissance patriarchy was relatively benign and that both men and women were generally comfortable within marriage and their separate...