ague & fever

Milady’s options

Only tangentially related to Milady, really, and triggered by something I saw in a post about how Milady’s only options as a 17th century woman would be menial jobs, prostitution or marriage. (But then, the show has been written by people who assume that “slave trader” was a reasonable option for a woman from Paris and that “assassin” was a job description on the payroll of the queen’s household, so.)

Even if Milady was a 17th century woman and not a fictional character written by 21st century writers in a very much non-17th century setting, she would have had plenty of choices what to do with her life. If the show had not been written by idiots, and if the writers had not been perpetuating the stereotype that “historical accuracy” means that women never had normal jobs and never contributed to societal and economic developments before the Suffragette movement rolled along.

Okay, so let’s say “menial jobs” are beneath Milady, such as seamstress, embroider, lace-maker, weaver (NB, not all of France is Paris; Tours was the centre of the silk industry, go to Tours, you stupid woman, and get a job there), milliner, shopkeeper, landlady of an inn/hotel, baker/confectioner, a merchantess running her own business (marry a merchant, off him after the wedding, you great big assassin, and inherit his business), etc. 

Let’s assume that Milady is intelligent (as most people appear to see her), ambitious, capable, and a quick learner. She was a count’s wife and the king’s mistress, so she must have some useful social and marketable skills. If there was a job she wanted, what should have stopped her?

Oh, right. Idiotic writing. And the idiotic belief that Women In The Past didn’t have jobs.

Copiously quoted from the “Encyclopedia of Women in the Renaissance”:

Despite the legacy of a misogyny deeply embedded in classical and medieval literature, fifteenth-century humanism provided a gateway for women into the literary and cultural mainstream. The new humanist curriculum introduced a roster of studies that appealed to both women and men. The new humanist curriculum produced women who published works in every literary genre, served unofficially as their husbands’ foreign ministers, acted as regents and coregents of their states, directed their children’s educations, practiced medicine, wrote treatises on every branch of knowledge, and became abbesses and nuns who taught in convent schools.

[…] In the cities and the courts, a few women worked as painters, miniaturists, composers, musicians, singers, and printers. Many such women worked in the ateliers and shops of their fathers. Other women plied their trades as artists and composers under the auspices of a convent.

What is this? Female professions that go beyond “wife”, “sex worker” or “assassin”? Who would’ve thought it!

Misogyny and sexism in the professional sphere does not mean that women didn’t have jobs. It means that their work was not as highly valued and highly paid as men’s, and that their contributions often weren’t recorded.

If menial jobs are beneath her, have some more glamorous ones:

Alchemist - Because there was no formal training in alchemy in universities, guilds, or colleges, women could access alchemical knowledge in the same way that most men did: by cobbling together an alchemical education from a few vernacular texts, by learning techniques from other practitioners, or perhaps by buying a recipe from another peddler of alchemical secrets. Women could also draw on their experience with traditional activities that utilized similar techniques, such as distilling water and cooking. Marie Meurdrac’s “Accessible and Easy Chemistry for Women” was published in 1666.

Nun (in a convent of her choice) – Convents provided protection for women, as well as an education, albeit limited, and they offered nuns a certain autonomy of action not possible for most women in the secular world. Their sphere of action was not limited to the private world of their community, since convent women lived off income from properties they owned, money they lent, and the sale of produce and handicrafts. Convent education and freedom from family responsibilities offered nuns the opportunity to study and to write. In many convents a recorder was appointed to keep account books or to document the history of their foundation and the events of their lives. […] Special convents were founded for reformed prostitutes and for poor girls in danger of turning to such a life. Beginning in the early sixteenth century new orders were founded that were dedicated to educating young women outside convent walls;

Writer – Women had an honored place in literary society by the end of the sixteenth century. A lineage of writers and translators, associated with virtuous household academies and represented as paragons of “learned virtue,” had proved to the intellectual elite that education made women not domestic liabilities but instead positive contributors to family honor and literary culture.

Salonnière (because women who ran salons were not habitually burnt at the stake OMG and Milady actually proved in-universe that she could move around in a salon environment) - In literary contexts, the term “salon” is most often associated with the women of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in France, such as Catherine de Vivonne (1588–1665), the marquise de Rambouillet, renowned for her chambre bleue, her salon for the intellectuals and courtiers who frequented the Hôtel de Rambouillet, and Madeleine de Scudéry (1607–1701), famous for her samedis, or the Saturday meetings of her salon circle, and also author or the longest novel ever published (Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus).

Makeup, cosmetics, perfume maker - Although the craft of cosmetic enhancement was known to women from the ancient times, it is in the Renaissance that its use became increasingly widespread. Perfumes were an expensive and highly sought-after commodity; create a good perfume recipe and off you go.

Medical professional - Women made important contributions to medical practice and theory during the Renaissance in Europe. Their work encompassed a broad range of areas of medical expertise, from nutrition and hygiene to gynecology and obstetrics. Moreover, outside of the health care fields, which were seen as “women’s domain,” they also participated in spheres where both men and women worked as medical providers, such as in surgery and optometry.

In the early seventeenth century, the celebrated surgeon and midwife Maria Colinetia, the wife of a surgeon, traveled throughout Germany demonstrating procedures and is credited with the technique of removing iron splinters from the eye with a magnet. Mary Trye, who trained under her father, published in 1675 one of the first medical manuals for women, her “Medicatrix, or the Woman-Physician”.

In Catholic France, hospital governance transferred from ecclesiastical authorities to lay municipal administrators, but the everyday health care work of women continued to underpin medical services. In some towns, the nuns remained the nursing personnel, but in other cities they were replaced by laywomen. In France, the first licensing regulations were established for Parisian midwives in 1560. [Contraception methods included] medical techniques such as inserting vaginal pessaries of rue and ground lily root combined with castoreum, administering douches designed to cool the womb, and using barrier methods.

Pharmacist - A large number of laywomen were experts in the concoction of medical remedies. Like learned physicians, women used their medications to treat a wide variety of illnesses, including dysentery, ague, fevers, headaches, toothaches, and epilepsy.

Printer - For centuries, scholars have placed women at the margins of the early modern book industry, this in sharp contrast to their contributions as illuminators and scribes in late medieval manuscript production. Knowledge of women’s roles in the early book industry is hampered by scattered and incomplete sources. Chief among these are the books themselves. Even when she published a book, only rarely would a woman sign her name in the colophon.

A printer’s business - even that of a modest typographer - was not usually limited to one shop but rather included multiple shops (for the storage of supplies or purposes of accounting) attached to his place of residence. It was a printing house where business and family often overlapped. Thus, though she might be barred from the printing shop itself, the wife or daughter of a printer could learn other facets of his business, such as bookkeeping, binding books, and preparing paper for printing. Marry a printer, you great accomplished seductress, off him after the wedding, and inherit his business, sorted!

Theatre actress, manager, playwright - European women of the fifteenth through early seventeenth centuries participated in both public and private theatrical activities not only as audience members, but also as playwrights, translators, actresses, patrons, shareholders, employees of theaters, and leaders of acting troupes.

Records of professional French actresses began to appear at the end of the sixteenth century in conjunction with the famous actor Valleran le Conte and his acting troupe. By the latter part of the seventeenth century, Frenchwomen performed regularly both at court and in the public theaters. They also served as theater professionals of another kind: as costumers, ushers, and box office managers. More important, talented actresses earned a share or quarter share in companies and therefore gained a voice and a percentage of the profit.

Translator (Milady presumably speaks English) - The importance of translation in the Renaissance cannot be overestimated. It brought the newly discovered classical texts to a wider audience; it helped circulate the currents of religious debate throughout the Reformation and Counter-Reformation; and it made vernacular works available to a new readership.

Of the approximately one hundred early modern French women writers whose works we know, over 10 percent published translations of ancient or modern vernacular texts, either in manuscript or printed editions. […] Although they were excluded from the colleges, universities, and academies, where translation was a standard part of the curriculum, the works of these women translators reflect the various approaches to translation current in Renaissance France. Such women writers as Anne de Graville, Marie de Cotteblanche, Claudine Scève, Anne de Marquets, Marguerite de Cambis, and Marie de Romieu translated popular Italian and English works into French.


Post brought to you by my ongoing irritation with showrunners and audiences alike who persistently claim that the only jobs available to Women In The Past were “wife”, “domestic servant” or “fallen woman”. Not every “Past” is set in the Jane Austen pastoral English province or Dickensian Victorian London.

Post dedicated to Marie de Gournay (1565–1645), professional writer in Paris, moral philosopher, polemicist for the equality of women, novelist, philologist, and husbandless all her life.