Pearls have been popular for centuries earning them the title of (one of) the oldest gems known to man. They became particularly fashionable throughout Europe in the 13th and 14th century then even more so in the 15th century and 16th centuries. At times various times there have been varying restrictions on the wearing of this jewel for instance in 16th century South America native Americans, free or slaves, were prohibited from wearing them as well as gold and silk (excepting those married to Spaniards). In 14th century Germany restrictions meant that no married woman or maiden could wear pearls on her dress. Later in the 15th century only one pearl was allowed which was limited to the weight of half an ounce. In 14th century Venice there were numerous restrictions on the wearing of pearls for married women and their use in dress at weddings. How much these laws could have or were actually enforced is unclear though the possibility of excommunication in Germany may have been a deterrent. In the latter part of the seventeenth century however the popularity of pearls waned and instead diamonds and other crystal gems came in to favour. However as shown above pearls have never really disappeared from fashion and continue to be popular today.
Sofonisba Anguissola (b.ca. 1532-1625) was born into an Italian noble family in Cremona. She was a successful painter whose work was even admired by Michelangelo. Her success has led her to be described as ‘the first great woman artist of the Renaissance’ (Perlingieri 1992). Sofonisba’s five sisters Elena, Europa, Lucia, Anna Maria and Minerva and her brother Asdrubale also painted, however Sofonisba the eldest of her siblings was the most notable. She conducted herself as a professional artist rather than a noble woman who painted as a hobby. Her father Amilcare was highly supportive of her career and went to great lengths to advertise her work. He even arranged for her to be informally tutored by Michelangelo who was also complimentary of her work. Interestingly her painting was praised for its lifelike quality a description normally retained for the best male artists of the day. Her popularity extended to Spain, in 1559-73 she was a lady in waiting and portrait painter at the Spanish court of Philip II. She married the brother of the Viceroy of Sicily, Don Fabrizio de Moncado in 1569. Later she was married for a second time to Orazio Lomellino a Geonese noble around 1579. She was buried in San Giorgio dei Genovesi, Palermo on 16 November 1625 having had a successful career.
A painting by Sofonisba of her sisters playing chess (1555)
Last resting place: San Giorgio dei Genovesi, Palermo
Perlingieri, Ilya Sandra, Sofonisba Anguissola: the first great woman artist of the Renaissance, (1992)
Robin, Diana Maury, Anne R. Larsen and Carole Levin (eds.), Encyclopedia of women in the Renaissance: Italy, France, and England, (2007)
As it is International Women's Day today (have a good one!)
I am going to rectify my euro-centricity by celebrating an international woman of note:
Murasaki Shikibu (973-1014) was a highly educated woman of the Japanese court, she is considered to be the worlds first novelist. Despite this we don’t even know her real name as it was not recorded (which was normal for daughters at this time). She married and had a daughter Kenshi, who grew up to be a poet herself. After her husband died she was called to be a lady at the court of Empress Akiko, more than likely because of her story writing skills. It was there Murasaki wrote her novel the The Tale of Genji. It is an invaluable source for historians as it gives a unique insight into the lives of the wealthy in medieval Japan.
Murasaki at work
Tyler, Royall (ed.), The Tale of Genji, (Penguin: London, 2003)
Bowring, John (ed.), The diary of Lady Murasaki, (Penguin: London, 1996)
In November 1726 news arrived in London that a 25 year old woman named Mary Toft had given birth to rabbits in the presence of a surgeon named John Howard in Surrey. King George I taking an interest in this event sent a surgeon of his own to examine the woman and he arrived just as she was giving birth to a fifteenth rabbit. The king’s surgeon Nathaniel St. André examined the rabbit and it appeared to have four months growth, it was noted how the woman seemed cheerful and easy after the birth and how there seemed to be no water or blood or any vaginal trauma. Mary Toft claimed that she had started thinking and dreaming about rabbits during her pregnancy, this was seemingly offered as a possible cause for the strange births. St. André was convinced by the births, even though the evidence was dubious, and took some samples to show the King. The King wanted further investigation and sent surgeon Cyriacus Ahlers to visit Mary who again gave birth to rabbits. However Ahlers found that on further examination the rabbits could not have developed inside Mary due to the presence of dung, hay, corn and straw inside the rabbits. Meanwhile St. André asked Richard Manningham a prominent obstetrician to examine Mary as well. Manningham was not convinced either and decided that she should be sent to London for further observation where she seemingly went into labour again. However Mary did not give birth to any more rabbits, a servant was caught trying to sneak a rabbit into Mary’s room on the request of Mary’s sister in law. After being threatened by Manningham with intrusive surgery she admitted that she had been lying about the whole affair. She confessed that in fact a woman (who she would not name) had colluded with her, encouraging her to emulate the births for profit.
‘The woman told her she must put up her Body so many pieces of Rabbets...From that time Mary Tofts did often, by the Assistance of that Woman, convey parts of Rabbets into her body, till at last she could do it by her self, as she has an Opportunity, and that she did continue to so do.’
This was unfortunate for St. André who had openly expressed his belief in the case publishing A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbets on 3rd December 1726. His career was left in ruins and he died in poverty in an almshouse in Southampton. The case had caused a great public stir and its disproval caused a great deal of embarrassment to the medical profession making them the brunt of jokes at their perceived naivety. Mary spent a few months in prison but it seems that the establishment did not wish to create further embarrassment and the case was dismissed.
As mentioned in an earlier post (Monstrous Births Imagined) in the medieval and early modern period it was thought to be entirely possible for a woman to affect the birth of her child through her thoughts during pregnancy. It comes as no surprise then that Mary was able to convince some others, even a surgeon that she had given birth to rabbits. However as Gelis points out in History of Childbirth, this case shows that the time in which monstrous births were considered a bad omen for the future had passed. Perhaps too the belief in the possibility of monstrous births of this kind had by the end of the 18th century passed as well.