Women vs Science

By: Rachel K.

The role of women during the Renaissance is usually viewed within the scope of sexual deviance or purity. There seems to be a failure to see women outside the submissive role of a wife or in the promiscuous role of a whore. This dichotomy  has its place in insuring socially that women are always viewed as less than men. But because of this view women hold a unique place in the development of science.

The rise of dissections and the understanding of the human body owes a debt to women. During the Renaissance there were strict rules against the dissection of human beings. Since the Church saw the body as a sacred temple, it denied the scientific need for dissection. The honor of being dissected was usually  left to those who had garnered sainthood, or those who had the potential to gain sainthood.

However, elite families were able to bypass this illustrious honor by paying private doctors to perform autopsies on their beloved family members. This concept may seem a bit out of place. Who would really want to have an autopsy performed on a family member who, for all intents and purposes, died of natural causes?

It is with that point that women come into play in the progression of science. The autopsies that were performed for the upper echelon occurred in one of two cases. The first case would be if a female, with children, had passed on. It is important to note that she had children because, if she were barren, there was no reason for an autopsy. During the Renaissance it was believed that only women could pass on hereditary diseases. Because of this belief when a wife or mother would die, an autopsy would then be preformed to insure the safety of children, especially the male heirs.

The second reason for an autopsy to be performed would not be for protective measures like in the first. Rather, it happened if a man had died unexpectedly. Many thought that if the untimely demise of a man occurred it was because he had been poisoned. Given the fact that during the renaissance women possessed a great deal of knowledge of housewifery, meaning the knowledge of herbs and their medical usage. It could only be assumed, knowing the fact about women’s knowledge base that if a man died suddenly it was because a woman had killed him. Therefore an autopsy would be performed to insure her guilt.

Both of these reason show that women, while having an effect on medicine and science, were not look on with much respect. If fact the constant supposition that women were the cause of any unnatural deaths or behaviors (in the case of some hereditary diseases) is proof that they were below men and could only cause them strife.


Curth, Louise H. “The Medical Content of English Almanacs 1640-1700.” Journal of

the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 60.3 (2005): 255-82.

De Renzi, Silvia. “Medical Competence, Anatomy and the Polity in Seventeenth-Century Rome.” The Society for Renaissance Studies 21.4 (2007): 551-67.

Park, Katharine. “The Criminals and the Saintly Body: Autopsy and Dissection in

Renaissance Italy.” Renaissance Quarterly 47.1 (1994): 1-33.

Siraisi, Nancy. “Anatomizing the Past: Physicians and History in Renaissance

Culture.” Renaissance Quarterly 53.1 (2000): 1-30.


About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

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