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'Lady Alda has been badly wounded in the leg by a boar, because our Lord insisted on all the women taking spears and staying at their posts'.
Letter from Lorenzo Strozzi to Prince Federico Gonzaga, 1512

In his letter, Lorenzo Strozzi describes the activities of Federico's parents, Francesco II Gonzaga and Isabella d'Este, Duchess of Mantua, who particularly loved hunting. It seems that it was not unusual for ladies at court, noblewomen and even abbesses to chase hare, deer and fowls of various kinds. In the 13th century, Henry III of England (reigned 1216–72) ordered the Chief Forester of the County of Essex to 'let the Reverend and Pious Lady Mabel de Boxham [Abbess of Barking] have her dogs to chase hares and foxes'.

In Spain, Isabella of Castile (1451–1504) was said to have slain a good-sized bear with her javelin. Although many upper-class women did hunt, there was some controversy over the suitability of this pursuit for the female sex. In The Courtier, which provides a view of court life in 16th-century Urbino, Baldassare Castiglione had one of the gentlemen advise against women riding and handling weapons. This suggests that such activities were frequent among the ladies of the court.

A stonebow was a silent weapon, used for shooting game birds, pigeons, hares and rabbits by knocking them down with small pebbles or balls of lead. Its lightness made it suitable for use by women and children. Stonebows could be splendidly decorated with carved ebony and gold damascened steel mounts.

Carved ebony stonebow with engraved and gold damascened steel mounts, Italy, about 1550. Museum no. M.162-1921. D.M. Currie Bequest

Carved ebony stonebow with engraved and gold damascened steel mounts, Italy, about 1550. Museum no. M.162-1921. D.M. Currie Bequest


'The good and virtuous woman will teach her daughters to work with their hands and above all to sew; idleness is a great evil.'
Sabba da Castiglione, Reminders or Teachings (Ricordi overo Ammaestramenti), 1569

Needlework was a popular and much praised pastime for young girls and women. It kept them safely and decorously occupied, and was vastly preferable (at least in a moralist's eyes) to less respectable activities such as dancing and playing card games. Girls sewed and embroidered items for their trousseau – chemises and handkerchiefs, as well as larger items, such as tablecloths and wall hangings. Sometimes girls also sold their products through an intermediary.

Nuns were especially active in lace-making and embroidery, and often worked on a professional basis. The Florentine grand duchess, Johanna of Austria, used to regularly receive great bundles of embroidered shirts, towels and lace from the convents in Florence, together with letters begging her to settle the bill. One such letter reads, 'Please send us the money for our work ... I am sending you the bill again ... you took our works almost eight months ago already, if you remember ...'. The 'works' included different types of lace, and the bill was finally settled in April 1573.

Pen, ink and watercolour manuscript of embroidery designs, by Lunardo Fero, Venice, Italy, 1559. Museum no. E.1940-1909

Pen, ink and watercolour manuscript of embroidery designs, by Lunardo Fero, Venice, Italy, 1559. Museum no. E.1940-1909

The popularity of lace-making meant that pattern books were widely available. They were mostly published in cheap printed copies, but the example by Lunardo Fero is an especially fine, hand-drawn manuscript, full of ornamental and floral motifs derived from classical and Middle Eastern designs. The folio shown shows the influence of contemporary Turkish textiles and tiles. The author dedicated the manuscript to Elena Foscari, the daughter of one of the ruling families of Venice, praising her for her virtue and ready intellect. The reference to virtue was a standard compliment to women, and such pattern books were often addressed to belle e virtuose donne (beautiful and virtuous women), but Fero may have been referring specifically to the perceived usefulness of such pattern books as primers for young women.

Embroidery could provide extra practice in shaping the letters of the alphabet. Giovanni Andrea Vavassore, for example, in the introduction to his book Model of Works (Esemplario di Lavori) (1530), instructs women to 'write with the needle'. The book ends with a pattern showing the arms of the Foscari family, which Elena and her female companions would have embroidered on all kinds of household textiles. The crest is even more important in the context of this family as their ancestor Francesco Foscari held the highest political office in Venice as Doge from 1423 to 1457. The presence of their crest on furnishings and clothing advertised the fact that the Foscari belonged to a powerful clan with a glorious history.


Uncut sheet of woodblock-printed playing cards, by Gilles Savoure, Lyon, France, 1490-1500. Museum no. E.988-1920

Part of an uncut sheet of woodblock printed playing cards, by Gilles Savoure, Lyon, France, 1490-1500. Museum no. E.988-1920

'Girls today ... take up dice, cards and other masculine amusements'
Desiderius Erasmus, Colloquies, 1529

This complaint comes from one of the speakers in Erasmus's dialogue on 'Knucklebones, or the game of tali'. He would have easily recognised the sheet of playing cards, printed from a wooden block, with the knave (or jack) of hearts and the knave of diamonds repeated alternately. The figure of the 'knave' originally meant 'a son' and had no negative connotations at the time. It was only later that it came to mean a rogue. The sheet dates to the late 15th century and shows two of the four suit signs that had been adopted by French card-makers by this date, the same spades, hearts, clubs and diamonds that are in use today. The cards are marked with the initials G.S.C. and G. Cartier, which suggest that the artist was Giles Savouré (also known as 'Cartier' or 'Cardmaker' in French), who worked in Lyons from about 1480 to 1506. This survival of the artist's name is very unusual as playing cards were ephemeral objects that became bent and dirty through use and were eventually thrown away.

When card games arrived in Europe in the early 14th century, they were at first the preserve of the well-to-do because the cards were hand-painted and subsequently expensive. However, the advent of woodblock printing led to a system of relatively cheap mass production, in which cards could be printed in sheets from a single wood block.

As a result, card playing became exceedingly popular with both men and women and at all social levels – so much so that a Paris decree in 1397 forbade people to play at 'tennis, bowls, dice, cards or ninepins on working days', while Henry VII of England (reigned 1485–1509) forbade servants and apprentices from playing at cards except at Christmas. Preachers, theologians and moralisers all railed against their use. In Bologna in 1423 the Franciscan friar, and later saint, Bernardino da Siena preached so successfully against gaming that the people threw thousands of cards onto a great bonfire in the public square.

Despite these strictures, gambling was still a widespread pastime. Furthermore, playing for fun, rather than for money, was not condemned, so cards themselves did not attract censure. Indeed, when the 15th-century artist Antonio Cicognara painted a set of tarot cards (used for gaming rather than divination) and presented them to Cardinal Sforza, the Bishop of Pavia and Novara, the cardinal evidently felt no moral qualms in asking the artist to make similar packs for his sisters, who were nuns in the Augustinian convent in Cremona.

Women were often avid card players. Parisina Malatesta, the young Duchess of Ferrara, ordered an expensive hand-painted pack for herself in 1423, and a year later sent off for two cheaper packs for her little twin daughters, Lucia and Ginevra. That women often gambled with money is also clear. Mary Tudor (1516–58), daughter of Henry VIII of England, and later Mary I of England, ran up substantial debts due to her constant card playing, while the pious archduchess Johanna of Austria seems to have enjoyed better luck in the popular French card game of piquet.

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